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Class Act

Andrew Anderlonis

Andrew Anderlonis says Rediker Software’s products are designed to require as little time or fuss as possible from their users.

As a chemistry teacher in the late ’70s, Rich Rediker was simply seeking a way to generate tardy notices more efficiently, using a computer which, by today’s standards, seems impossibly inadequate for … well, anything. But that humble machine became the foundation of what has evolved into an international leader in school administrative software, doing business in every state and 115 countries. Through four decades of innovation and growth, one goal has remained constant: to make life easier for teachers and administrators, so they, in turn, can spend more time with the kids.

 

The Commodore PET was a late-’70s computer with a tiny, calculator-like keyboard and a whopping 4K of RAM.

It was also the foundation on which Rich Rediker built a software company that today employs 125 people at its Hampden headquarters and around the world, and has grown to become an international leader in what’s known as administrative software for schools, with a presence in all 50 states and 115 countries.

“The company started before the Internet existed, before Windows, even before DOS,” said Andrew Anderlonis, Rediker’s son-in-law and the firm’s second-generation president. What did exist, though, back in 1980, was a need.

Specifically, as a chemistry teacher at Longmeadow High School, Rediker needed an easier way to track student tardies and generate notices. So, using the PET he had scraped up enough money to buy, he designed a program to do just that — and also helped the school’s secretary produce a daily bulletin faster than before.

“He kept working on it, tinkering with it, and it became useful to the school,” Anderlonis explained, to the point where he offered to sell his program to other schools, beginning with St. Mary’s High School in Westfield in 1981. After a couple of years dividing his time between teaching and broadening his tiny software business, he left LHS and dedicated himself full-time to what is now known as Rediker Software.

Two generations of Rediker leadership

Two generations of Rediker leadership: Rich and Gail Rediker (right) and Andrew and Amy Anderlonis.

At first, Rediker ran his business from the basement of a house in Hampden — a story with echoes of the way giants like Amazon and Microsoft were birthed. As he developed more sophisticated programs to run other administrative tasks, sales took off, and in 1998, he moved into the building at the center of Hampden that still houses the enterprise today — that is, after a needed expansion in 2006.

“As the software evolved, he converted it for DOS, converted it to Windows … now we’re tackling mobile-type things. It’s amazing,” Anderlonis said. “Not many technology companies have been around four decades.”

Because of that long history, he added, “we’re convinced that we were the first student-information system on a PC. There were mainframe systems, but not on a PC.”

Covering the Bases

Today, the company serves public, private, charter, and religious schools with administrative software. That’s a broad category Anderlonis said, one best explained by some of the company’s key products, including:

• Administrator’s Plus, which manages data on students and staff. Schools can use the system to track attendance, create report cards, manage discipline, and build student schedules. Teachers can use the integrated web gradebook, TeacherPlus, to calculate and enter grades. School administrators can create digital portfolios for each student and staff member, and use them to electronically store documents and class projects. The system allows schools to batch e-mail report cards and other documents to parents, eliminating the need for paper and postage. Families can log into the system from home to see their children’s grades as well as other important school information. Finally, teachers can maintain web pages for their classes as a learning resource;

• Admissions Plus Pro, an enrollment-management software program that streamlines the admissions and enrollment process, while reducing extra work and duplicate data entry. The system can help private schools increase the number of applications they receive by allowing parents to submit them online;

• Teacher Evaluator, a web-based application available as an app for iPad but also accessible with any web browser. The application helps schools schedule and complete teacher evaluations; and

• School Office Suite, a product that complements Administrator’s Plus and folds in other areas of school functions, including cafeteria, library, and school-nursing services, in addition to basics like applications, admissions, and academics.

Rich Rediker (center) with his staff

Rich Rediker (center) with his staff in Hampden, just some of the 125 employees based across the U.S.

“Our products cover anything that has to do with student data — attendance, report cards, grades, discipline, general demographic information, billing information, and more,” Anderlonis said. “The admissions product allows schools to customize the admissions process. Our goal is really to provide a complete product suite. When kids apply and enroll, they’re brought into the system, and their information can be shared with parents.”

The goal, he went on, is user convenience — specifically, as much automation, and as little time spent fussing with data, as possible.

“The end goal is for schools not to have to spend a lot of time managing data,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re building systems that are easy to use and easy to understand, and part of that hinges on great customer support.”

It’s an element Rediker has invested in, with an in-house call center in Hampden. In fact, 75% of the company is built around customer support and product development; half the firm’s employees are developers, tasked with creating new products and improving existing ones.

One sign of progress is the way the software has evolved beyond something only administrators used, to products that teachers and students interact with directly. “We’re approaching nearly 2 million students using portals, and close to 100,000 teachers; we’ve seen really substantial growth in the adoption and use of our portals.”

Since his arrival at the company four years ago — Anderlonis’ wife, Amy, is Rediker’s daughter and the firm’s public-relations manager, while Rich Rediker continues to act as CEO — he has made an effort to expand the ways in which Rediker interacts with customers, including delivering software through the cloud; partnering with Microsoft, Apple, and Google to open up new channels for its products; and finding new uses for its expertise.

“We’ve moved into products for mass notification, allowing schools to mix text, call, and e-mail notifications across the system,” he noted as one example. Another is a deeper commitment to designing school websites, an effort for which Rediker has partnered with Wild Apple Design Group in Wilbraham.

The bottom line, Anderlonis said, is that schools always have room for improvement in the way they incorporate technology. “Schools in general typically lag a little behind on the tech highway. They’re obviously constrained by what’s in the budget. But most schools are going to spend on classroom technology; we’re trying to provide software tools that enable them to be more constructive.”

The last two years have been an especially fruitful time, he added, when it comes to developing next-generation technology at Rediker. “We’ve looked at where we’ve had success and how we can continue that success and continue to grow. We have a very tight-knit family atmosphere here — we promote family and a great workplace culture — and make sure that, as a family business, we take care of our employees because, in the end, they take care of our schools.”

Next Generation

In short, Anderlonis said, he simply wants to make sure Rediker stays ahead of the technology curve and carry on an impressive record of growth.

“Rich has done an amazing job ensuring the company is profitable every year since the company was founded, and we continue to do that through product innovation,” he said. “My goal is really to set the company up for the next generation of management and success with these products, and to create a strategic vision going forward. With the products were introducing to the market, we’re focused on providing even more robust, powerful, and flexible tools for schools to utilize. We really feel we’re one of the top vendors in the U.S. with student-information systems, and we consider ourselves the market leader.”

As a preferred vendor for Massachusetts schools, Rediker software is employed in more than 80 districts and charter schools, but it has also forged a solid reputation in Catholic schools, recently winning a contract with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C, one of many large dioceses the company boasts among its clients.

Public or private, Anderlonis said, “we want  our customers to feel comfortable choosing to partner with Rediker. We want schools to call us when they need help. Schools call us all the time, and we’re there to talk to them.”

In addition, the company hosts three week-long workshops annually, each one drawing up to 100 educators from across the U.S. and around the world. “They interact with staff, train on the software, and get to network with other administrators. There’s a really tight-knit community around our products, both domestically and internationally. It’s pretty neat.”

As part of an effort to stay on top of advancing technology — while helping to cultivate the next generation of software developers — Anderlonis launched a summer internship program that brings a handful of promising high-school and college students on board to work on real-world projects.

“They experience the full life cycle — they’ll develop a product all the way from an idea on the whiteboard to possible customer interaction,” he explained, drawing from the skills they’ve been learning in school. “It’s not just a superficial internship; there’s a lot of depth. We give them a lot of autonomy. We’re essentially giving students in the local community an opportunity to use their abilities on real-world applications, but at the same time, they’re helping us.”

The company also connects to the community through a program called Rediker Cares, a volunteer program that allows employees to volunteer at local organizations and events during company time. As a result, employees have made significant contributions to local organizations, particularly Link to Libraries, the regional literacy initiative that was given workspace at Rediker free of charge; Anderlonis sits on the nonprofit’s board.

“Our company is a primary sponsor of Link to Libraries; they’re a great organization,” he said. “That’s another way we can give back — by helping promote literacy. Our employees have a chance to volunteer there and other ways in the community as well.”

That commitment echoes, in a different way, Rediker’s mantra of giving teachers more time with students, and developing software that allows them to have that.

“Technology is such a foundation for everything today, including education,” Anderlonis told BusinessWest. “Walk into any classroom nowadays, and you’ll see incredible technology — computers, tablets, smartboard projects. That’s the hardware, but what’s behind it? Our goal is to be part of the software that can help schools run more efficiently and effectively.”

Still, he added, as the company continues to branch out and diversify, it will do so at a measured pace, as not to lose the personal touch Rich Rediker has emphasized from his Commodore days.

“We’re not the biggest company, and we’re not the most aggressive,” Anderlonis said, “but we’re passionate about what we do, and we take care of our customers.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

A Critical Skills Gap

CyberSecurityAmerican employers have realized the vital importance of cybersecurity — but that realization has created a near-term shortage of workers that may require long-term solutions.

Cybersecurity was once the province of defense contractors and government agencies, but in the third edition of its annual cybersecurity job-market analysis, Burning Glass found that hiring has boomed in industries like finance, healthcare, and retail.

A glance at the headlines is enough to explain why. In addition to the federal Office of Personnel Management, recent cyber breaches have hit major consumer companies like Chase and Target. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2015 State of U.S. Cybercrime Survey, a record 79% of survey respondents said they detected a security incident in the past 12 months. Many incidents go undetected, however, so the real tally is probably much higher.

Yet, we are also seeing multiple signs that demand for these workers is outstripping supply. Job postings for cybersecurity openings have grown three times as fast as openings for IT jobs overall, and it takes companies longer to fill cybersecurity positions than other IT jobs. That’s bad for employers, but good news for cybersecurity workers, who can command an average salary premium of nearly $6,500 per year, or 9% more than other IT workers.

Or, put another way, there were nearly 50,000 postings for workers with a CISSP certification in 2014, the primary credential in cybersecurity work. That amounts to three-quarters of all the people who hold that certification in the U.S. — and presumably most of them already have jobs.

This is a gap that will take time to fill. The skills for some IT positions can be acquired with relatively little training, but cybersecurity isn’t one of them. For example, five years of experience are required to even apply for a CISSP certification. That doesn’t even consider the rising demand for experience in a specific industry, like finance or healthcare. This suggests that the shortage of cybersecurity workers is likely to persist, at least until the education and training system catches up.

Among the key trends in cybersecurity jobs:

• These jobs are in demand and growing across the economy. The professional-services, finance, and manufacturing/defense sectors have the highest demand for cybersecurity jobs. The fastest increases in demand for cybersecurity workers are in industries managing increasing volumes of consumer data, such as finance (+137% over the last five years), healthcare (+121%), and retail trade (+89%).

• Positions calling for financial skills or a security clearance are even harder to fill than other cybersecurity jobs. The hardest-to-fill cybersecurity jobs call for financial skills, such as accounting or knowledge of regulations associated with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, alongside traditional networking and IT security skills. Because finance and IT skills are rarely trained for together, there is a skills gap for workers who meet the requirements of the ‘hybrid jobs.’ Meanwhile, more than 10% of cybersecurity job postings advertise a security-clearance requirement. These jobs, on average, take 10% longer to fill than cybersecurity jobs without a security clearance.

• Cybersecurity positions are more likely to require certifications than other IT jobs. About one-third (35%) of cybersecurity jobs call for an industry certification, compared to 23% of IT jobs overall.

• Cybersecurity employers demand a highly educated, highly experienced workforce. Some 84% of cybersecurity postings specify at least a bachelor’s degree, and 83% require at least three years of experience. Because of the high education and experience requirements for these roles, skills gaps cannot easily be resolved though short-term solutions. Employers and training providers must work together to cultivate a talent pipeline for these critical roles.

• Geographically, cybersecurity jobs are concentrated in government and defense hubs, but are growing most quickly in secondary markets. On a per capita basis, the leading states are Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado; all have high concentrations of jobs in the federal government and related contractors.

Burning Glass is a Boston-based firm that delivers job-market analytics that help employers, workers, and educators make data-driven decisions. Its full report on cybersecurity jobs is available online at burning-glass.com/research/cybersecurity.

Sections Technology

Growing Concerns

EpiCenter President Jeff Glaze

EpiCenter President Jeff Glaze

Jeff Glaze was happy running a successful family business, a manufacturing company that, at its peak, employed 120 people. But when the climate changed in that industry — at a time when he was becoming heavily involved in a business-consulting model known as enterprise resource planning (ERP) — Glaze decided to transition into that latter business full-time. He called his new enterprise EpiCenter, and, almost five years later, once again finds himself at the forefront of his field.

 

Jeff Glaze thought the second-generation manufacturing company he led in Westfield would survive a lot longer than it did, “but the rules changed.”

It’s a story with a happy ending, however — not that it’s anywhere close to ending. Instead, EpiCenter, the business-consulting company that emerged four years ago from his previous enterprise, is growing by some 20% per year, boasting a national and international reach.

“We were a contract manufacturer of metal nameplates, labels, and signs; 80% of our business was making nameplates for companies,” Glaze said of a family business called Decorated Products that his father launched in the 1950s and peaked in the 1990s with 120 employees at the Westfield plant.

“Frequently, our niche was items that had to be UL-approved, giving safety information. They weren’t just pretty; they had to be functional also, carrying a serial number and critical information about how to operate the equipment safely,” he explained, with national clients including Black & Decker, Singer, Craftsman, and Tappan Appliances.

“In 2007, we won the Pioneer Valley Business Excellence Award, modeled on the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award,” he went on. “We wanted to be the very best we could, to set the highest standards so our customers would be happy with us and know we were providing the best-quality products.”

But by then, the writing was already on the wall.

The turning point came in 1994, when President Clinton granted most-favored-nation status to China, opening up the Chinese market for American companies, which started moving to China and building factories and paying workers 5 cents an hour instead of $15, Glaze recalled.

“I’ll never forget the day Black & Decker called,” he said, noting that Decorated Products manufactured a stainless-steel gauge for a radial arm saw. “For 10 years, we were shipping 4,500 parts a week. In 2001, the Black & Decker guy called during lunchtime and said, ‘well, Mr. Glaze, it’s $4.15 from you, $2 from China. So, how much inventory do you have?’ And that was that. We were losing customers.”

However, a parallel story was emerging. Decorated had been working with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) provider that went out of business during the late 1990s. “Any large manufacturing facility has this type of system; it’s a necessity if you’re going to be efficient and meet customer requirements,” Glaze said.

An ERP system — essentially a suite of business-management software and consulting services that helps clients manage business functions ranging from IT to accounting to human resources —  is so critical, in fact, that Glaze and several of the failing provider’s other clients hired one of its employees to keep those functions afloat.

Eventually, Glaze became involved with Epicor, an international leader in ERP. “They had a great product and had grown over the years, and I wanted to make sure we partnered with someone who’d last a long time; I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.”

The EpiCenter team

The EpiCenter team includes about 25 local employees and dozens more scattered across the country.

Soon, he got involved in a local Epicor user group, a group of committed users who provide suggestions and feedback on service changes and enhancements. Later, he became president of Epicor’s New England user group, started attending national conferences, and ascended to president of a global user group in 2005, representing 20,000 users of the software around the globe.

Consulting for Epicor had become a major part of his business — so much that, in 2006, Glaze told BusinessWest, “the president of Epicor said, ‘why don’t you become a partner? We’ll give you some training, and you can do the same things you’re doing now, helping customers use the software, but we’ll pay you to do it.’”

A few years later, Decorated Products was no more, and EpiCenter was born.

Avoiding Disaster

There was, of course, the issue of all the employees that had worked at Decorated — for a long time, in many cases. The manufacturing business didn’t seem viable anymore, a sentiment Glaze’s children seconded and thirded.

“They said, ‘realistically, it’s not a great business model; we’re not really interested in continuing it.’”

Still, “nothing is more hurtful than laying people off,” he continued. “Fortunately, I had a friendly competitor in Stafford Springs, called Willington Nameplate. I said, ‘why don’t you buy my manufacturing company so my remaining employees have a place to go?’”

Willington agreed, and the vast majority of Glaze’s workers joined the Willington team, and EpiCenter emerged as a full-time ERP business — and a successful one, with about 60 employees scattered across the U.S; of 140 Epicor partners worldwide and 100 in the U.S., it ranks in the top five in overall size.

“A company might buy software from Epicor or someone else and ask us to implement it for them. We can sell to them as well and implement our expertise in all facets of running their business — accounting people, tech people, operations,” Glaze explained. “We try to become an ongoing resource for our customers, too. We’re their outside ERP firm.”

Enterprise resource planning is used by organizations to collect, store, manage, and interpret data from many business activities, including product planning, costs, service delivery, marketing and sales, inventory management, shipping … the list goes on, and ERP systems are highly adaptable to each client.

EpiCenter has some financial-services clients, but 80% of its customers are in manufacturing and distribution. “We have expertise in capacity planning and scheduling, job costing, and much more,” Glaze saide. “This is very important to all kinds of manufacturing companies.”

While some companies might opt to handle those functions internally with Quickbooks and other software, he continued, they often wind up with a hoghepodge of systems that don’t talk to each other, and they require human capital to enter information from one system to another.

An effective ERP solution, on the other hand, can cut overhead by 30% to 50% in certain cases, he went on. “Nobody has to re-enter information three or four times. As a result, you have better communication, reduce inventory, improve scheduling, improve profitability, keep overhead down … it really is a necessity. When you have a company that’s doing $10 or $20 million in sales, especially in the manufacturing world, it’s pretty hard to operate without that.”

Because the software is scalable, Glaze said, some startups will become partners, and the ERP expands as they do. “Those are the fun ones. It’s really great to see those success stories in Massachusetts. A lot of biotech companies we have as customers have certainly followed that model.”

Most EpiCenter clients are small to medium-sized businesses. Large, Fortune 500 companies may opt instead for platforms like Oracle and SAP. “Those systems are much larger and require a large, technical staff to keep them going. They do a great job, but they’re not appropriate for smaller companies.”

About 25 of EpiCenter’s employees work in Westfield, while the rest are spread out across the country, either in satellite offices in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Minnesota, or working from their homes, ready to travel where clients are.

“The limit on growth, for us, is finding qualified people. We need people with all these different backgrounds,” Glaze said. “We recruit nationally; it’s a very rigorous screening process and very vigorous training process. Basically, I need to add one or two consultants a month.

“Customers don’t want to train us in how to run their business, so the qualifications to be a consultant with us are pretty stringent,” he went on. “We have, in a few cases, hired people right out of school and brought them along with lower-level support work until they get enough experience to do consulting, but they’re much better off with a degree in business or engineering and five to 10 years experience using the EPR system, so they can hit the ground running. If we can’t find those people, we’ll certainly train.”

More Than Customers

Glaze was quick to stress that EpiCenter clients are more than customers. He told of one Worcester company whose IT official needed to donate a kidney to his son, so EpiCenter sent one of its own people there to do his job until he returned to work. “That’s the level of support we give. We feel very strongly that our customers are like our family, and we want to treat them right.”

That said, he concedes that, for a company doing $500 million annually in sales, EpiCenter is a bit of a secret in Western Mass.

“We work nationally and go where people ask us to go,” he told BusinessWest. “But we’re a great option for companies in Western Massachusetts.

“We’ve been in a tough economy, and while there are some bright spots, this region has lost a tremendous amount of manufacturing,” Glaze went on. “But there are some niche areas that are doing well, and that’s great; we’re serving those industries that are doing well — and we can make them that much more successful.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

An IT Diet for 2016

By TERRY GROGAN

Terry Grogan

Terry Grogan

How come New Year’s resolutions always seem to center around dieting and getting in shape?

You spend your holiday dinner enjoying all of the spoils of the season and then try to talk yourself into a ‘lifestyle change’ once the ball drops.

It’s a lot like that around the old IT department, too. We’re all being asked to do more with less, economize personnel resources, and limit capital expenses. To put it another way, senior management is telling us to lose some weight without investing in an entirely new wardrobe.

But how did we get so fat?

Remember that tome on business success called Good to Great by Jim Collins? It’s a book that I try to make my bible, though I don’t always live up to it as well as I should. (Yes, it’s my annual New Year’s resolution!) The book suggests that a central theme of all truly great businesses and individuals is the ability to create annual goals and objectives. But in order to do that, I think you also have to take a look back at what you might want to change.

When I walk into companies for the first time, usually as part of an IT gap assessment, and ask, “when was the last time you looked at the things you should stop doing?” I’m often faced with blank stares and puzzled looks.

Any IT organization that’s been around for a while has accumulated, shall we say, a little tire around the midsection. The telltale signs are the processes and procedures “we’ve been doing for years,” especially if the IT staff has also been with the company for a while.

These processes and procedures were put in place (no one quite remembers when) because someone wanted a new type of report, a filter to keep out that ‘virus of the day,’ or a custom workflow to make it easier to put a new server online. However, once that new process, procedure, or deliverable was in place, most IT departments rarely looked back, moving on to the next task or crisis at hand.

The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” became a rule to live by, and as the years went by, the old processes and procedures were carried forward. As a result, companies generate the same reports, build servers the same way, and approve or disapprove access or technology for the same reasons, even if doing so requires a large amount of work, major upgrades, or more money to support.

No one goes back and examines these things until a high-threshold pain point or sentinel event occurs (e.g. the process is no longer supported by a major upgrade of a product, a merger causes re-evaluation of a technology, etc.). When this happens, we’re often surprised to find that what we may have been doing for the last few years is either no longer necessary, is very inefficient, or isn’t useful to anyone.

We shouldn’t need a sentinel event to move us to action, but since ’tis the season, let’s resolve to review old processes and procedures the same way we review (or should review) policies: vowing to do it every year. You probably won’t hit all of them, but pick a few every 12 months and examine them.

Ask your staff for their opinions. It’s amazing the answers you get when you ask everyone to “tell me the three things in your job you’d stop doing or do differently, if you were able to make the rules.”

Experience suggests that the first few times you undertake this exercise, you’ll actually find things that you and your staff are doing that are of no value at all. Stopping them frees up resources and/or makes forward progress easier (look at Microsoft’s abandonment of Active X in the new Edge browser).

But even after you hit the low-hanging fruit, continuing to create a ‘stop-doing’ list annually will help you look at those new tasks, processes, and projects that maybe aren’t as important as others. It will help create a focus on the things you really should be doing and create a literal lifestyle change when it comes to adopting processes in the future.

In short, you start thinking about new things with a critical eye, asking, “should we even begin this?”

So, as you begin making your list and checking it twice, consider simply taking stock of what you already have in place. Shedding those extra data-storage pounds or slimming down your infrastructure may be as easy as just asking a few questions.

Happy new year.

Terry Grogan is a 17-year veteran of the business and healthcare IT industries and is chief information officer of Holyoke-based VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Always Connected

Apple Watch OS2

Apple Watch OS2

An on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and the array of smartphones, wristband health sensors, and tablets only continues to expand as the major players compete for their share of a growing pie. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest focuses this year on those mobile devices, which are connecting more Americans than ever, 24/7, to all the data they could possibly want.

In an increasingly connected world, mobile technology continues to advance in ways both predictable and surprising, with the final market potential still unclear.

Take the newest iteration, the ‘wearable tech.’ A recent Forbes study reported that 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds either use or want wearable tech, which includes the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, and the Microsoft Band. Those products are where BusinessWest begins its annual look at the most popular and best-reviewed technology available, with a focus this year on mobile devices.

Apple is banking on continuing demand by improving its Apple Watch OS2 ($339), which Digital Trends calls “a piece of wearable tech that feels friendly and has a little bit of quirky character about it. It’s not without its issues, but they’re not too bad. The effort to learn the interface feels worth it to us.”

CNET calls the product, which packs the apps of a smartphone into a small package that fits on the wrist, “a beautifully constructed, compact smartwatch. It’s feature-packed, with solid fitness software, hundreds of apps, and the ability to send and receive calls via an iPhone.” However, it continues, the battery doesn’t last much more than a day, and the interface can be confusing.

Still, Digital Trends notes, “the world of wearable tech has been crying out for a product that engages people — something that operates as a companion device to our phone, but also goes a step further. For Apple, that step was using it to connect people in unusual, fun ways.”


Go HERE for a chart of area telecom/voice/data providers


As Apple Insider explains, initial response to the Apple Watch has promoted competition in the marketplace from upstarts like Pebble, which is offering a new model starting at $250 — almost $100 cheaper than the Apple Watch — in addition to models above and below that price point.

Many consumers love wrist-worn devices for their health-tracking capabilities, a category currently dominated by Fitbit. “I think back to when fitness wearables first emerged — devices like the Fitbit — and wonder, what made them so great? Why did people get so excited?” CNET’s Scott Stein asks. “Was it really the fitness, or was it the idea of turning fitness-based into something fun?”

He noted that the devices counted steps like their pedometer predecessors, but made a game of it — hit a goal, get a reward; share progress with friends and compete. “Gamification, a catchphrase a few years ago, is exactly what these [devices] provided: they’re carrots on a stick to motivate exercise.”

Fitbit Charge HR

Fitbit Charge HR

That said, he likes what he sees in the Fitbit Charge HR ($139), which adds heart-rate tracking to the mix and syncs all data to the user’s smartphone. “The more expensive $250 Fitbit Surge does practically the same things, but adds a larger watch display and can track runs via standalone GPS.”

But, while $150 for the Fitbit Charge HR is a good price for a full-featured device, Stein adds, “in practice, something about the Charge HR feels a step short of exciting. It’s how Fitbit handles heart rate. It’s how it feels to wear. And, it’s how useful — or not — I found the addition of heart rate to be in my daily routine. It’s one of the best wrist-worn heart-rate trackers out there, but it’s not the complete slam-dunk fitness band I expected it to be. It is, however, the best Fitbit band currently available.”

Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft is a player in this field as well, and Yahoo’s David Pogue calls the just-released Microsoft Band 2 ($250) “a smartwatch with more sensors and fitness-monitoring capabilities than anything else you can buy,” from original features like a GPS antenna to track runs or bike rides, a heart-rate monitor, UV light detectors, and a skin-temperature sensor, to new additions including a barometer for measuring elevation (a bonus for hikers and climbers) — 11 sensors in all, in fact.

It’s not for everyone, however; Pogue declares the Band the winner for serious exercisers, but says the Fitbit Charge HR is better for the all others — those who aren’t hardcore about exercise but could benefit from gentle reminders and motivators.

Smartphones Everywhere

Of course, smartphones remain the go-to mobile device for most Americans, with 64% of all adults and a whopping 85% of the 18-29 age group among their users, according to the Pew Research Center.

PC Advisor notes that fierce competition in the smartphone market means there’s a quality device for everyone at just about every price point — and consumers are typically happiest with the operating systems they are comfortable with.

“Although there are others around, it’s best to stick with the big names, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and potentially BlackBerry. If you’re already using one, then it might be best to stay in that camp — especially if you’ve invested time and money in its apps. However, it’s not difficult to switch, so you should consider them all.”

Design will come down to personal taste, the site adds, and most of the top smartphones now have a very thin and light chassis. “The best smartphones typically use premium materials like glass, aluminum, or even steel, and on this front you’re best off trying a phone out in the flesh to see whether it feels good for the size of your hand.”

Despite the greater competition, most of the tech press still places Apple’s iPhone and Samsung Galaxy atop their lists of best phones.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Samsung Galaxy S6

For example, TechRadar calls the Samsung Galaxy S6 ($499) “a brilliant phone that shows Samsung still has what it takes.” An improvement from the Galaxy S5, the latest edition boasts improved camera performance and audio quality, and the sharpest video display on the market.

In addition, “the design is finally something we’re pleased to hold in our hand, rather than the plastic cheapness of last year,” TechRadar notes, and “it’s actually extended its lead at the top thanks to some amazing price drops — so you can now get the best phone on the market for an incredibly low price these days. A no-brainer.”

PC Advisor piles on the praise as well, calling the Galaxy S6 the best Android phone of 2015. “It’s fast, it’s well built, it has a gorgeous screen, and the software isn’t overly intrusive. The fingerprint scanner is vastly improved, the heart-rate scanner a potential draw for some users, and the wireless- and fast charging welcome inclusions.”

But Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus ($499) tops many rankings as well. CNET praises the latest version’s improved speed, better camera, always-on Siri, pressure-sensitive display, longer battery life, and bigger, higher-resolution screen — all improvements over the 2014 model. In fact, the screen size has grown so much that some people might consider it too bulky. “The iPhone 6S Plus has a few key advantages that give it an edge for serious iPhone users, but its big body may not fit for a lot of people.”

iPhone 6S Plus

iPhone 6S Plus

Meanwhile, Phone Arena says it’s not surprising that the iPhone 6 is the world’s bestselling smartphone, citing the 3D Touch display and Live Photos as desireable improvements, as well as an improved system chip and better battery life.

“Put in simple words, the new iPhone has a much faster processor and memory. It also comes with a new, 12-megapixel camera that now is able to capture a more detailed images than before and records video in the trendy 4K resolution, plus it supports new slo-mo options. Add to this the rich iOS ecosystem that continues to secure the best apps and games first, and one starts to understand the huge appeal of the iPhone 6s.”

Still, Apple and Samsung have some competition in the market. PC Advisor offers praise for Sony’s Xperia Z5 ($349), which comes with an aesthetically improved rear cover and adds a fingerprint scanner, but keeps much of its previous design.

“Once again, the camera is great, but it’s tough competition out there, and arriving late in 2015 means rivals are now available for a decent chunk less,” the site explains. “Once the price drops, which it will, this will be a great option for those of you looking for a waterproof flagship with a Micro-SD card slot.”

A Bigger Canvas

Smartphones are far from the only tech battlefield, however. The tablet market continues to be hotly contested as well. According to TechRadar, Apple still tops the game with its iPad Air 2 ($599) — a remarkable improvement over even the “remarkable achievement” that was the original iPad Air.

iPad Air 2

iPad Air 2

“It’s even thinner and lighter than last time around, and to a noticeable extent. The screen is better, with more vibrant colors, it’s more powerful thanks to its A8X processor, and the battery life holds up just as well. It even benefits from Touch ID and Apple Pay, and while these features aren’t as exciting here as they are on phones, they’re still nice to have. In short, the iPad Air 2 really is the complete package, and while you can always find things to niggle about, there are no significant flaws.”

As always, however, Apple has competition. PC Magazine touts the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 ($399), calling it an improvement over its predecessor in every way, including a thin and light design, upgraded performance, and better-quality camera.

“Do tablets matter anymore?” the site asks? “Samsung would like you to think so. Despite releasing some very large phones recently, the company still believes there’s a home for tablets in a market crowded with enormous phablets. And Samsung’s latest offering, the Galaxy Tab S2, definitely makes the case that, yes, tablets are still very much relevant.”

It’s the same story told in many different ways — Apple continues to set the pace, but its main competitors keep closing the gap. That’s healthy for consumers, no matter which device they prefer to take on the go.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Sections Technology

How Come the Message So Often Gets Lost in Translation?

By STEVE SHAW

 

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw

Most companies and organizations do an admirable job when it comes to communicating with employees. That rumored merger, those pending layoffs, a change in leadership, or implementation  of a new health plan are the classic reasons for reaching out and touching someone in the cubicle down the hall.

So, how come the message from the IT department often gets lost in translation?

Technology can be a scary thing, and oftentimes, it’s treated that way. The IT department is happy to be left alone to its bits and bytes, while the communications department says, “just let us know when we’re going to be down for maintenance or need to teach people how to use that new software.”

That way of thinking is no longer valid in today’s technology-driven economy.

According to the global professional services company Towers Watson, companies with highly effective internal communications had 47% higher total returns to shareholders versus companies with the least effective internal communications programs over the last five years.

A Gallup poll says 70% of U.S. employees are not engaged and that disengaged employees cost our economy $450 to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. The Work Foundation, a U.K.-based, nonprofit think tank, says organizations that increase practices related to engagement by just 10% increase profits by an average of $2,400 per employee per year. Do I have your attention now?

One of our healthcare clients, a mid-sized hospital system with 12,000 employees, is implementing a new hyper-converged infrastructure, totally revamping its approach to networking, data storage, and computing. This two-year effort comes at a time when hospitals, mandated by the federal government to adopt expensive electronic health record (EHR) systems, are asked to do more with fewer resources.

The new infrastructure will do that, cutting datacenter construction costs by millions and allowing the IT department to become faster and more efficient. They’ll even be able to monetize their new technology investments by offering services to the outside world. But that’s what’s in it for IT. What about the doctors, nurses, and administrators who just want to be able to access their work data from any device, anytime, from anywhere?

We recommend beginning the communications process by putting yourself in your customer’s head. They want the software they depend on to do their jobs to be available whenever they need it. They have little sympathy for outages, maintenance windows, and the availability of a technician to fix an issue when it arises. In most cases, they have little concern for operating systems, storage hardware and software, or data-center design.


Go HERE for a chart of area telecom/voice/data providers


In that case, IT communications to an organization should come down to answering three basic questions.

• What are you doing and why? Use metaphors and real-life examples to put the answer into an easily relatable context. Try something like this: “why are we implementing a new network infrastructure? Think about how much data we all produce, share, and store each year. If you printed it all out, the paper alone would fill an 80,000-seat football stadium. Now, think about the secure network needed to handle that information, the machines needed to store it safely, and the system needed to protect it all in the event of a natural disaster. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

• How does the technology directly benefit the ability of people to do their jobs? Eliminate the jargon. The people who know the difference between ESX and Hyper-V will seek you out if they want to get technical. Your message? “Our new network will practically eliminate outages, support service times will improve dramatically, maintenance windows will go away, and if a piece of hardware fails, our backup kicks in immediately with virtually no interruption.” People generally don’t need to know how it works. They just want to know how it affects them. Resist the temptation to explain further.

• What do I need to do now? Be specific, but be reassuring. People customize their desktops and develop their own unique way of working. They also feel that, just when they finally get the handle on how to access the ‘E’ drive and navigate to where their data is stored, someone in IT decides to perform an upgrade that has them throwing a shoe at their computer screen. Sympathize. Produce easy-to-read checklists, develop logical implementation schedules, and communicate on a regular basis when things change. A single e-mail won’t do the trick.

The bottom line when it comes to communicating IT initiatives is this: you’re asking people to change (sometimes in a big way). There’s natural resistance to it, and it takes time. Don’t just tell them what, when, and why. How it will make their life easier is most important. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. You know what you want people to do. You just want to get them to think it was their idea.

You can’t communicate too much if the message is relevant and substantial. You can communicate too much if it’s overly technical and isn’t easy to internalize. Finally, choose your vehicle wisely. A one-time e-mail or fancy newsletter may find its way to the “I’ll read it later” file. Be creative. A mixture of written communication, live events, and interactive forums are critical for long-term buy-in.

Remember, IT is highly technical, but it’s not rocket science. Don’t confuse communicating the end result with a need to tell people how you got there.

Steve Shaw has spent more than three decades in the marketing and communications industries as a television reporter, production agency founder, and multi-media network executive. He is the vice president of Marketing and Communications for Holyoke-based VertitechIT, a business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firm; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Capturing Attention

Amy Scott, Eric Belliveau, and Rory Hurlburt

Amy Scott, Eric Belliveau, and Rory Hurlburt offer a next-generation model of marketing, expressed in their tagline, “Marketing Agency, Evolved.”

Amy Scott and her team at Wild Apple Design Group say technical expertise is a must when designing websites that engage customers, but so is an element of “surprise and delight.” The goal, she insists, is to create relationships with clients that are transformational, not transactional — and fun to boot.

The little critters are called Worry Eaters.

Their names are Betti, Bill, Flamm, Polli, Enno, Saggo and Schnulli, and more than 2.5 million of the plush characters, with zippered mouths that allegedly ‘eat’ a child’s worries when they are written down and fed to them, have already been sold in Europe.

“Let us carry your worries so you don’t have to,” they shout on their newly developed website, which includes a video in which a worry eater banishes a little girl’s fear that a monster is lurking under her bed.

The website launched earlier this summer, and purchases can be made on an e-commerce shopping cart, thanks to Wild Apple Design Group in Wilbraham, which was hired earlier this year to introduce the toy to the North American market by the Haywire Group, a Springfield-based game designer and manufacturer.

The result is not only endearing, it earned the company marketing awards from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts. Wild Apple was recently feted as a Silver winner for consumer-product website design in the Summit Creative Award competition for its work on the Worry Eaters microsite, and received a Summit Creative Bronze for website redesign for its work for Kino West Media, a cinematic videography company in Palmer. In addition, that website redesign earned Wild Apple a Silver Creative Award.

Overall, the firm is known for its unusual creativity, and founder Amy Scott says that, although clients don’t expect it, there is always an element of “surprise and delight” in their finished product.

“Our major goal is to create a relationship with our clients that is transformational, rather than transactional,” said the director of project management and business development. “We want to listen to them, learn about their goals, then surprise and delight them by exceeding their expectations.”

This stems from work done by Rory Hurlburt, Scott’s brother and the company’s creative lead, art developer, and senior designer.

“Clients usually have no idea that we will do something fun,” Hurlburt said. “But we’re a modern marketing agency, and these things make someone want to watch a video or talk about what they have seen.”

However, the lure of an attractive site has to be backed by technical expertise, and that’s where Eric Belliveau enters the picture.

“There are many considerations and elements that go into a website and digital marketing; for example, it requires science, analytics, and technology to get someone to add something to an e-commerce shopping cart, then complete the sale,” said Wild Apple’s director of operations, technology, and Internet marketing, who explained that Worry Eaters are sold at a number of retailers, and creating the e-store was an important piece of the development process.

“It had to be responsive, which means it was built so the different characters could be viewed on smartphones,” he told BusinessWest. “But this all takes place behind the scenes, and the user is completely unaware that the intersection of more than one technology is required.”

Amy Scott

Amy Scott says her company was one of the first in the area to design responsive websites, which work on multiple platforms.

A new site for LEAP Bookkeeping in West Springfield and Greenfield was just launched, and although it contains all the pertinent and necessary information potential clients need to know, there are also unexpected — nee, delightful — surprises: Bakers showing off rising dough, a panting dog, two people raising their fists and giving each other a high five, and a woman wearing a cape with the LEAP logo on it, who is standing on the edge of a building that overlooks a city skyline, which seems to suggest she could easily leap into those buildings to help them solve their bookkeeping problems.

Hurlburt says creating such a finished product is neither quick nor easy, and it requires not only technical acumen, but a complete understanding of the clients and their needs.

“I live, eat, and breathe the project I’m working on at any moment in time,” he noted. “I want to understand as many facets of the business or organization as I can, and also seek to learn who the client is, and how that personality can shine through the company or organization.

“But technology is behind everything we do; we’re experts at leveraging it and provide outstanding designs with a ‘wow’ factor,” he went on, adding that data is brought together into a visual design that represents the brand they are working on.

Scott said that’s important. “Almost every company has a website. But they often have an unfulfilled dream to convey their business digitally in a way that draws more prospects and tells their story.”

Talent Merger

Scott says she cut her teeth in marketing during a stint in the garment-manufacturing industry.

“I was the buyer, not the provider, but always felt there was so much room for improvement in leveraging the multitude of services required to drive successful marketing campaigns,” she said. “I was driven to create them.”

That drive compelled her to embark on a career change, and in time, her vision, energy, and success in graphic-design artistry inspired her to open Wild Apple Design in 2000, focusing on print marketing.

However, Scott occasionally collaborated with Belliveau. He began working in the field of web development in 2000, shortly after the dot-com crash, and eventually opened his own web-design and development company, which included consulting services.

Scott also called on her brother for help with a number of projects. Hurlburt was working as a freelancer and started his career with the idea of pursuing comic-book illustration, but soon found he enjoyed layout and design. “I spent 15 years designing for everything from web to print, which taught me that being well-equipped with information and strategy increases the value and viability of any well-designed art,” he said.

Although the trio had worked together on an occasional basis, their collaboration morphed into something much larger in 2009, after it became clear that the combination of their honed talents and expertise made them a unique team.

At the time, ABC decided to film an episode of the popular show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in Suffield, Conn.  Scott was hired to do the publicity, and after being told she needed to create a website, she contacted Hurlburt. Coincidentally, Belliveau got in touch with her and asked her to create a logo, explaining that he had a few clients serving as vendors for Extreme Makeover.

The trio ended up working together for ABC, and after overcoming a multitude of challenges, they decided to do another project together.

Eric Belliveau

Eric Belliveau says it requires science, analytics, and technology to get someone to add something to an e-commerce shopping cart, then complete the sale.

That happened in 2011 after Scott was awarded a contract by Rockville Bank to build a website for the institution. Although the project turned out to be larger than they expected, their success resulted in a major decision to work together on a permanent basis under Scott’s umbrella.

She rented space in Post Office Park in Wilbraham and was joined by Hurlburt and Belliveau, who left his business, then religiously began evaluating every available technology.

Today, he focuses on digital marketing and the complex mechanics involved with setting up and maintaining websites. Meanwhile, Hurlburt is responsible for the creative-design work, and Scott focuses on marketing.

It’s all come together nicely, but when they first joined forces, their new, combined venture was a gamble.

“We felt we could do better and more business together, but it was an investment that involved blood, sweat, and tears; when we moved into this building, we were not sure if it would pay off,” Hurlburt said. “At the time, our goal was simply to survive.”

Fast-forward to 2015, and the company has not only survived, it is thriving. Rows of awards line the walls, and a year ago, Wild Apple created the tagline “Marketing Agency — Evolved,” which is indicative not only of its success and the wide range of services it offers, but the risks it has taken, which includes a foray into the world of responsive websites.

“We were one of the first to adopt the technology. When mobile traffic started to increase, it only involved an avenue or two and was an innovative area,” Belliveau recalled, explaining that, four years ago, sites were built either for desktops or mobile devices and typically didn’t function for both.

“But today, it’s becoming standard; all sites need to be responsive and function on tablets, smartphones, desktop computers, Kindles, and tablets,” he said, noting that the smartphone is usually the first point of contact.

“Roughly 40% of a website’s traffic will be on a mobile or handheld device; it’s also the place where most people access their e-mail,” Belliveau continued, adding that responsive websites need to be tactile, which means they can be manipulated by swiping or touching the screen, then clicking on an option.

The firm’s entry into this arena resulted in a world of experience, and today Wild Apple is able to deal with the entire ecosystem of marketing, which can include a responsive website; e-mail; social media; print, TV, and radio advertising; and a logo, branding, and identity design.

Detailed Process

When the firm gets a new client, Scott conducts an in-depth interview to unearth its specific goals, needs, and vision for its products and services.

Once she has gathered all the information she needs, Hurlburt puts pencil to paper and begins sketching, and typically comes up with three or four ideas.

Rory Hurlburt

Rory Hurlburt takes pride in the creativity he brings to websites developed by Wild Apple Design Group.

“What he creates has to align with the client’s goals, have a ‘cool’ factor, and yield results, which means grabbing someone’s attention,” Scott explained. “First impressions are important, as the general rule is that you have between eight and 10 seconds to get someone’s attention.”

Since about 35% of their clients are schools, creating surprise and delight can mean showcasing their colors, mascot, or “whatever their pride and joy is, in a unique way,” Scott continued.

For example, she discovered that the mascot for Cross Schools in South Carolina was a stingray, but they weren’t using an image of one. So Hurlburt took that information and created a happy little sea creature which has been imprinted on the students’ uniforms as well as the school’s signs, website, and marketing materials.

However, Belliveau’s expertise is also critical to the development process. “I’m in the forefront of emerging technologies such as responsive mobile website design and deploying the next generation in content-management systems,” he said. “I keep the team up to speed with the latest and greatest technologies so they can articulate what’s new or, in some cases, what’s changed in the ever-evolving landscape of web-based software.”

This work is ongoing for many clients as well as those who come to Wild Apple for an initial visit. “They want our critical eye on their brand. It’s about how it will hold up in a mobile environment, which involves more than aesthetics,” Hurlburt said. “And that’s what makes us different: we have design, marketing, and technology well in hand.”

Thanks to that winning combination, the company’s clients are unlikely to need to unzip the mouth of a Worry Eater and feed it to banish their marketing fears.

Sections Technology

Data-center Migration

By GERRY GOSSELIN

Gerry Gosselin

Gerry Gosselin

“OK, twist to your left. No, your other left! … wait, sorry, you were right the first time. Now I’ll go higher. Stop, stop! Put her down for a moment.” And so it went until the couch finally squeezed through the front door.

This is how my team and I felt maneuvering a 500-pound UPS package off a short pickup truck, onto a loading dock, in the rain. “Next time we’ll check for a height difference — have someone with a big umbrella,” I noted.

Planning a data-center migration is one of the most time-consuming and underappreciated aspects of the job, and as those of us who have performed dozens of these exercises over the years know all too well, the planning can’t just wait until the last minute.

The Packet Pushers podcast (packetpushers.net) recently ran a wonderful 90-minute show on data-center migration. Guest Chris Church contributed an outstanding outline to the podcast’s show notes that brought so many of those simple but integral tasks into focus. Here is a collection of his (and our) 10 overlooked items that you might want to add to your data-center-migration checklist.

1. I can do this, right? Don’t let the inspector test the big red button after you’ve gone live in production. If you just built your own datacenter, get your permits and inspections scheduled far ahead of time. Municipal inspectors operate at 56k-modem speed.

2. Put your print on it. If you’re moving into a high-tech, collocated facility, make sure everyone has proper access to the data center. This may be as simple as the correct name on a list, or as advanced as biometrics. Packet Pushers even relayed a story of their moving truck breaking down and the new truck not being allowed up to the data center’s loading dock because it didn’t match the original make and model.

3. Don’t touch that.  Single-phase, 3-phase, 220, 110. The right time to learn what that means is before you hear a pop (ask me how I know). Make sure you humbly chat with facilities folks about power.

4. More inter-tubes. If you can, order new circuits for your new data center and pay the extra cost (rather than cutting over from your old data center to the new during the move). This gives you an opportunity to test and configure well in advance. As a veteran in the ISP space, trust me when I say that you do not want to get in touch with your ISP’s provisioning department at 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

5. We’re live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Remember to adjust your external DNS TTLs a week in advance. The lower you can set your TTLs, the faster the world will find your new data center. You simply can’t do this on a moment’s notice.

6. Fifteen minutes could save you 1,500%. If you are moving gear yourself, ask your company if it has adequate insurance. Are you legally able to move gear yourself? Some equipment leases can be moved only by the vendor.

7. Anyone have a camera? Simple snapshots of the monitoring systems before the move assure that, afterward, all the proper services are back in the same state they were before you started. Your team doesn’t need to be troubleshooting an application that was broken eight months before the migration even took place.

8. Where’s the boss? Stakeholders should be available after the migration to test all of their systems and give the thumbs up before your team leaves the site.

9. Snacks, sleeping bags, and essentials. This will be a long, tiring night or weekend. Everyone will perform best when they’re well-fed, have a place to grab a quick power nap, and thoroughly know their tasks, how to validate when their task is complete, and who to check in with along the way.

10. Go team! Data-center migration is a team sport. It’s best to ensure some non-technical folks are on your team who can objectively deal with timelines, coordination, and communication with the executives who may be waiting at home for an update. Your team should also include folks outside of your organization (vendors, consultants, or VARs). You may do this type of migration only once every decade, but your consultant does it several times a year. Pick up the phone.

With every data-center migration, there will be a couch-twisting-in-the-doorway moment. Time spent working on a great plan can facilitate a smooth migration and keep your door jambs intact.

Gerry Gosselin is director of Technical Operations for VertitechIT, a rapidly growing healthcare and business IT consultancy. He is a nationally known expert in systems programming, automated network monitoring and management, as well as network engineering and administration; (413) 268-1621; [email protected]

Sections Technology
IT Industry Confronts a Perplexing Shortage of Workers

Dave DelVecchio

Dave DelVecchio says technical skill is important in a prospective employee, but so is a willingness and desire to learn new things.


Around the turn of the millennium, when dot-com startups were riding high, computer science was an attractive career option for college students choosing majors. Ironically, however, although technology has become even more pervasive in daily life over the past 15 years, the number of people entering the IT field has plummeted, slowing growth at high-tech companies that would be expanding faster if they could only find the talent. The key, industry leaders say, is working together to reignite interest in what remains a well-paying, in-demand, often exciting field.

As a mechanical-engineering major in college, Joel Mollison didn’t expect to one day own a successful computer-services business. But then he taught himself computer repair, which — along with his growing distaste for his chosen major — led him to change direction, and eventually launch what’s now known as Northeast IT in West Springfield.

That means he’s always looking for people like him, who at some point discover a love for computers and information technology and are skilled at it. But finding those people has not been easy.

“Technology encompasses such a vast range of jobs,” he told BusinessWest. “Programmers and coders are a completely separate thing from people who do what we do, providing managed services, managing people’s networks … and that’s totally different from, say, web design.”

By all accounts, opportunities in those fields and many others in the IT realm are only growing. Yet, at the same time, the number of young people graduating from college with the necessary skills to succeed in IT is falling.

Indeed, according to Code.org, a national nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science, by 2020, the U.S. will have 1.4 million computing jobs available, but only 400,000 computer-science graduates available to fill them.

That’s a reflection of two colliding trends, the organization notes. As computers increasingly run virtually every facet of our lives, fewer college students are choosing to major in computer science. Specifically, 60% of all jobs in the broad realm of math and science have a computing element, but only 2.4% of all college students majoring in a math or science field are choosing computer science.

“We’ve absolutely been dealing with this for the last five years, and the problem will only get worse before it gets better. In general, we need a lot more folks than there are out there,” Mollison said. “There are a lot of different facets to IT, and each requires its own unique skill set, although there is some overlap. To be a professional in any of these sectors, you need to possess a vast range of knowledge.”

Dave DelVecchio, president of Innovative Business Systems in Easthampton, has experienced the same struggle.

“The pool of qualified talent is not deep enough to provide the exact mix of talent we need,” he said. “Typically, we somebody to come to the table and demonstrate they have the ability to learn — someone with good, broad-based knowledge to draw from, but also a desire and willingness to learn new things.”

Delcie Bean IV, president of Paragus Strategic IT in Hadley, understands the scope of the national problem, but also how it affects his firm, one of the country’s fastest-growing IT companies, on a daily basis.

“Being a top-paying career and the second-fastest-growing career, it’s absolutely the right career to be in, but fewer people are graduating today than 10 years ago; interest is actually shrinking,” he said. “And when we talk about where women and people of color fit in, it’s abysmal.”

He cited statistics from Code.org noting that women, who claim 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, earn just 12% of all computer-science degrees. Meanwhile, at the high-school level, 3.6 million students take the advanced-placement computer-science exam, but only 3,000 of those seats are occupied by African-American and Hispanic students.

Combined, all these numbers tell Bean there’s plenty of untapped potential to draw students of all demographics into an IT field that desperately needs them.

“Paragus, at any given time, has four to eight open positions,” he noted. “Every open position represents an opportunity lost, because every employee has ROI and generates profit. If a position isn’t filled, that’s profit we’re not capturing.”

The net effect is that a company that has been growing at 25% to 30% per year could be growing at 45% to 50% if the talent gap wasn’t an issue and Paragus could hire whenever it wanted to.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest examines some of the reasons behind a drought of IT workers that could become critical in the next decade — and what both public- and private-sector entities are doing about it.

Digital World

It’s ironic, Mollison said, that the more people rely on high-tech devices to run their lives, fewer young people are interested in computer science as a career.

“Everything runs on computers now,” he noted. “Because of that, there’s a wide array of services, a wide array of products out there. Career opportunities are growing exponentially, and there are not enough people out there with the experience to fill those gaps.”

Thinking back to his college days 15 years ago, Mollison recalled there were a lot of people entering the IT field drawn by the promise of making a lot of money in an exciting, fast-growing field. It’s a different time, though, and Millennials are known for following their passions, not necessarily just a paycheck.

“If you don’t have a true passion for IT, if you’re not exposed to it at a young age, and if the desire isn’t there to begin with, I think a lot of people may be overwhelmed by the time they reach high school and college, and are figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” he said. “The tech field can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not absolutely sure that’s where you want to be.”

With the goal of increasing exposure to computer science at an early age, Bean serves on the advisory board of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, or MassCAN, which has developed a set of standards, now being considered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, for making computer science part of the K-12 curriculum.

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison says young people often don’t grasp the sheer breadth of career opportunities available in IT.

“We really thought about what kindergartners should learn, what eighth-graders should know, what high-school graduates in the Commonwealth should be able to do in computer science,” he explained. “It’s as much a way of thinking as anything else. We’re not just talking about specific technology skills; what’s needed is critical thinking, troubleshooting, problem resolution, abstraction — traits that are of value in whatever industry you go into. If someone is an amazing critical thinker, I can teach them IT.”

The standards would likely be recommendations to start, Bean said, “but if they were to make it mandatory, it would put Massachusetts ahead of the curve in graduating some of the best talent from the K-12 system. And we’re already known for our higher-education system.”

Training young people in computer science is something Bean takes seriously, which is why he launched Tech Foundry last year. The Springfield-based nonprofit, which trains promising students to enter well-paying IT jobs right out of high school, recently graduated its first class of 24 participants.

DelVecchio sees, in the promise of Tech Foundry, echoes of Javanet back in the mid-’90s. A locally based Internet service provider, that company was later acquired by RCN, a large, regional player, which created large numbers of entry-level positions in its call center and support services, providing opportunities to work in the IT field when interest in such careers was peaking.

Then, “when RCN decided to move its call center to Pennsylvania, all those folks scattered to the wind — but many of them ended up pursuing a career in IT,” DelVecchio said. “We’ve got four people who have RCN on their résumé.”

In fact, he went on, many local IT companies were seeded with those former RCN workers, who have moved up to management-level positions. A decade or so down the road, DelVecchio hopes a vibrant IT industry in the Valley will be similarly peppered with Tech Foundry graduates. “You might not see the impact this year, but it will benefit the region 15 years from now.”

Bean certainly hopes his brainchild has such an impact, because it’s not just small computer firms that crave IT talent, but some of the region’s largest employers.

“It’s a huge problem with a national impact. Look at MassMutual. Look at Baystate. If they don’t have good tech employees, that’s a problem for them — and a problem for everyone.” Many companies, he added, have experimented with outsourced or even offshore IT services, but find that in-house talent is more efficient and produces better return on investment.

But the talent lag has everyone struggling to meet those needs.

“All we’re doing is shifting people from one company to the next,” Bean said. “There’s a lot of poaching going on — giving someone a raise to be your employee. We all have to do a little bit of that to survive, because the talent pool isn’t wide enough. But it’s not good for the region.”

High-tech, High-touch

When Bean and others talk about IT skills, however, they’re not thinking only about the inner workings of computer hardware and software, but also about ‘soft skills’ — in particular, communication skills — so critical to today’s IT world.

“That’s one of the really big challenges facing a lot of companies like ours,” Mollison said. “We have a lot of people who have to face the public, and you can have great technical people, but if they’re unable to communicate, if they don’t have those soft skills, they’re not as great an employee as they could be; it’s difficult to send them out into the world.”

Some of this reflects one particular type of person who embraces technology early in life, he added.

“A lot of folks are introverted and love computers — it’s a way for people to escape into another world; that’s how they get into it,” he explained. “But as they grow in that facet, and become technically mature, they can lose those soft skills, not being a part of day-to-day life.

“Personally,” he added, “I’ve seen some people who have been sheltered, not been outgoing, who have been turned around. But they need to be exposed to a group of tech people who are more outgoing, who can help break them out of their shell and be more personable, so they can work in a job where they deal with people on a regular basis.”

It doesn’t help, DelVecchio said, that too many IT graduates of the region’s highly regarded colleges and universities take their skills to the Boston area or out of state completely. This talent drain is one of the top-priority issues of the Hampshire County Regional Chamber, of which he’s a founding member.

“This region has vast assets we bring to the table,” he told BusinessWest. “We hear stories of people who moved away for job opportunities, then moved back because this is a place they want to raise a family. We need to be louder about the fact that they don’t have to move away; they can start a career, they can thrive here, and raise a family in the Pioneer Valley. That’s true not just for IT careers, but for many industries.”

Bean hopes the network of entities actively working on the IT talent problem — from state departments to regional workforce-development agencies; from community colleges to initiatives like Tech Foundry — will start to make a dent by not only cultivating young people’s interest in IT, but helping them attain both computer expertise and the soft skills necessary to work with a public that, again, is becoming ever-more reliant on technology.

“I think it’s about exposure,” he concluded. “Typically, people choose their career path based on what they’re exposed to in school — and computer science has really dropped off the radar.”

He noted that CSI: Cyber, the latest iteration of CBS’ popular criminal-forensics TV franchise, is one media entity showing an attractive and exciting side to IT work.

“I’m interested to see its impact; I think that will do more for computer science than anything else. Four years ago, there was a huge increase in students wanting to be physicists, and they traced it back to The Big Bang Theory. I think we underestimate how much exposure pop culture has to do with career paths.”

Meanwhile, his work — and that of others — to promote the computer-science industry locally continues.

“If we can get people more exposure to IT jobs, how exciting this field is, how much it pays, how fast it’s growing,” Bean said, “we can really start to move the needle.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
Effective Planning Can Turn an Obstacle into an Opportunity

By GREG PELLERIN

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

“The budget evolved from a management tool into an obstacle to management.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci was talking about government spending when he made this comment, but he may as well have been referring to those days leading up to the start of a new business budget year. It’s that time when executives go scrambling to either spend what’s going to be lost or, more than likely, find more money to fund an important project.

There is no shortage of priorities for most IT departments. Strategic initiatives, the need for infrastructure upgrades, and software-licensing mandates are a constant challenge. Yet, hiring freezes and the redirection of funding within an organization often make implementation difficult. In my opinion, the answer to those once-a-year budget woes can often be found in four areas: prioritization, funding, implementation, and monetization.

 

Prioritization

It seems simple, but you’d be surprised by how many times the cart is put before the horse.

Virtualizing desktops and networks is a major investment with a cost-saving upside, but unless a company has clearly defined its ‘bring-your-own-device’ policy, a VDI plan shouldn’t even be considered.

Moving the data center to accommodate growth? Carefully and objectively reviewing hyper-convergence and public cloud potential is critical, because the best time to implement any or part of this solution is during a data-center migration/upgrade.

Perhaps it’s time to get rid of that old PBX phone system and institute a truly unified communications approach. By their very nature, VoIP solutions are software-based and are meant to evolve as business priorities change. A new, unified communications platform with the latest videoconferencing, instant messaging, and speech-enablement capabilities may be overkill and a real budget buster (you can always add capabilities later on).

Prioritizing actual versus perceived needs is the better course of action.

 

Funding

Critical IT investments can often be made by simply finding creative ways to reduce or redeploy existing budgets. A telecom-expense-management audit (often funded by the savings it incurs) takes a look at existing wireline and wireless contracts and often reveals thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, in unnecessary broadband spending. One of our clients was being charged $10,000 a month for a high-speed connection to an office they had closed years before!

Sometimes you can save big time by simply getting your suppliers to pay. Companies like Microsoft set aside millions of dollars each year to supplement new technology assessments and investments. All you have to do is ask.

Implementation

Oftentimes, the high cost of implementing IT solutions can be borne by outsourcing or staff augmentation.

Can’t handle incremental project workload with existing staff? New technology requiring specific expertise, and spikes in workload as a result of short-term projects, can be handled less expensively — and, in many cases, more efficiently — by temporary personnel.

You don’t need to outsource the entire project, but management may be the most logical place to start. A project manager can attend and lead facilities and departmental meetings, coordinate and manage critical milestones, and, most importantly, train your staff to take over the role once he or she is gone.

By focusing internal resources on core business functions, training time is reduced without adding permanent overhead.

 

Monetization

Everyone want to make money off of their investments, yet IT departments often find this difficult to accomplish.

Do you have an internal engineering-services department that handles maintenance and repairs to critical technologies? Does your data center have excess capacity?  These are just two areas where organizations can find monetization opportunities, but unfortunately, they are two areas that often fail miserably.

Before launching any effort to monetize internal resources, be sure that senior management establishes priority protocols that allow those resources to respond to external client needs with the same level of urgency as internal requests. This will ensure the success of most monetization efforts and a way to fund other IT initiatives without breaking the budget.

The budget process has become a necessary evil in today’s competitive business  climate. Creative planning approaches can turn it from an obstacle into an opportunity.


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Technology
Video Specialist Chris Thibault is Focused on Growth

Teebo-DPartChris Thibault was asked to pinpoint why he believes his work — everything from television commercials to instructional videos on deck screws — stands out in a field crowded with competitors.

He kept coming back to the word ‘edgier,’ as in “some people think my style’s a little edgier than what you would get from a corporate video-production company. When they’re looking for something to connect and be sharable and be cool, for lack of a better word, people come to me.”

When pressed for more specific definitions of what amount to technical terms — ‘edgier’ and ‘cool’ — Thibault, founder and president of Chris Teebo Films (he says that spelling makes his name easier to pronounce and his company easier to find), struggled somewhat, as might be expected, because of the subjective nature of those words.

“Anyone can make a pretty picture,” he told BusinessWest before a lengthy pause as he searched for more words. “I just try to bring my own style into it and not base anything off a template.”

With that, he decided that the best way to get his points across was to play a shorter version of what eventually became a promotional video and television commercial he produced a few years ago for something called the Great Bull Run — a series of events that, as the name suggests, brings the Spanish tradition of running with the bulls to this country.

“I like to take risks — that’s what they teach you in art school starting on day one, to take risks when you can,” he said as he rolled the footage, which showed close, detailed shots of individuals running alongside 1,500-pound bulls, an effect created with several cameras, including one strapped to one of the runners (christeebo.com/portfolio/the-great-bull-run). “You can cover this like a news story, and there’s nothing wrong with news, but we wanted to get right into the mix and capture what this is about. People who run with bulls, or might run with bulls … they want something edgier.”

Teebo’s ability to create that intangible has helped him grow his now-Springfield-based company dramatically in recent years, with a 60% increase in revenues in 2014 alone, and add to his portfolio of work.

For example, it now includes several Big Y commercials featuring New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a promotional video for the Spirit of Springfield’s Bright Nights lighting display (produced for its 20th anniversary), television commercials for political candidates such as recently elected state Sen. Eric Lesser, and much more.

Some of these works are edgier than others — political office seekers, not to mention Big Y, tend to be fairly conservative, while the Bright Nights video was shot from the perspective of a young child and is thus quite compelling — but together, they have helped Thibault meet the ongoing challenges of gaining word-of-mouth referrals and generating business from that marketing tool known as the Internet.

And he hopes an upcoming project — a promotional video of Springfield being financed by its Economic Development Department with the goal of showcasing current initiatives and inspiring more of them — will create more momentum in efforts to build his brand and get involved in Springfield’s comeback.

“I’m really excited about this project,” he said. “I’m going to knock it out of the park with that one.”

Looking ahead, Thibault, as he said, wants to not only help promote Springfield through that video now in the planning stages, but be part of the city’s turnaround. He recently relocated to a office in 1350 Main St., and is conceptualizing plans to develop what he called “shared creative space” in the city.

Such a facility, a large studio, would become workspace for a host of creative professionals, including photographers, videographers, audio engineers, and even musicians, he explained, adding that there are models for such a development in New York and Boston that he hopes to emulate.

In the meantime, his more immediate goals are to expand the portfolio with more ‘edgy’ work, add additional employees, and grow Chris Teebo Films into a regional force within this industry.

For this issue and its emphasis on technology, BusinessWest talked at length with a young business owner focused (there’s another industry term) on creating images that get results, no matter how the client chooses to measure them.

Setting the Stage

Like most individuals in this business, Thibault can trace his interest back to his high-school years. In this case, it was a 10th-grade class in video production at Springfield’s Sci Tech that got him hooked.

“I thought this was the coolest thing ever,” he noted. “It combined all the aspects that I loved. I was always an artistic kid — I would always draw, mess around with music and sound — and I thought video combined all that, so I fell in love with it.”

image from a video

This image from a video produced for the Great Bull Run displays what Chris Thibault calls an “edgier” style that defines much of his work.

Finding ways to express this affection became more difficult when his family moved to West Springfield. The city’s high school didn’t have video production classes, so he created some.

He bought a Sony handycam, began filming the school’s sports teams, and created seasonal highlight videos that garnered both revenue and acclaim.

“They would play them at the year-end banquet, and the video would get a standing ovation,” he recalled. “These weren’t huge events, but everyone would stand up and clap, and that was a great feeling.”

Thibault was accepted at the prestigious School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, starting classes there just a few days before 9/11 — an event, like many others, that produced learning experiences far outside the classroom that have stayed with him to this day.

“New York City is a school unto itself,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while attending SVA, he lived in Brooklyn Heights, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, and watched tens of thousands of people stream over than span from lower Manhattan on the morning of the terrorist attacks, most all of them covered in a gray dust.

He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but his artistic tendencies compelled him to buy a small disposable camera and grab a seat on the only operating subway line still bringing people into Manhattan.

“I was probably 15 blocks from the towers,” he recalled, adding that when the American Express building, also known as Three World Trade Center, fell, the ground shook, and he knew something serious was going on. Perhaps the most unforgettable moment, though, involved a news reporter he remembered seeing on television.

“There was a woman coming back with a baby covered in soot, she was walking up the street,” he recalled. “This newswoman started yelling to the cameraman, ‘get her!’ She kicked over a trashcan, the cameraman got on top, filmed her, then jumped off, and the newswoman got the lady on camera to do a story.

“It was just a New York mentality — ‘let’s do it.’ There was no fear,” he went on, adding that this philosophy manifests itself in some of his current work.

But it would be awhile before Thibault could really start expressing himself artistically.

Indeed, he would soon leave SVA, in part for financial reasons — “New York is great, the school was great, but it’s very expensive out there” — but also because he felt a need, and desire, to get working.

That work, however, involved mostly wedding and event videography while he also drove a truck for his father.

“I did cheerleading events, dance competitions, anything like that; anything that had to do with video, I would take the job,” he said, adding that he did so to pay off the camera he purchased and build a name for himself.

“At the end of the day, my heart wasn’t really in it — filming weddings is not my passion,” he went on, adding that, as his skills improved and his reputation grew, he eventually started doing work for commercial clients and never looked back. “It’s tough to break into commercial video when you’re doing events, and at one point, I just said, ‘I’m finished with this,’ and stopped taking down payments for weddings, even though it was tough to do so, because I was trying to build a business.”

Thibault said his big break, if one could call it that, came when he pitched an idea to the owners of the Springfield Armor, the NBA Developmental League team that came to the city in 2009, to do a promotional video and build excitement for the team before it actually arrived in the City of Homes.

“I felt a buzz around Springfield when they were coming in, and I just wanted to do something great for the city as well as the team,” he recalled as he played that video, which showed people of all ages and persuasions playing hoops, a young man dribbling a basketball over the Memorial Bridge, the unveiling of the Armor name and logo, and other scenes designed to build interest in the Armor and the sport. “It was a commercial about the team, but without the team — they weren’t here yet — and it was cool.”

The spot was originally designed for the web, but it was so well-received, it started airing on area TV stations, said Thibault, adding that he was later approached by a marketing firm representing a Developmental League team in Texas to do something similar.

On-the-spot Analysis

With the Armor video and other works now in his portfolio, Thibault had more to show marketing firms and prospective clients, and work started to come his way, as both director and producer of content through Chris Teebo Films and as a freelance director of photography.

Indeed, as the latter, he’s been involved with projects ranging from promotional shoots for office supplies giant Staples and motor oil maker Castrol to part of an episode for TLC network’s Sex Sent Me to the ER, a show that has actors re-enacting real-life accidents that occurred during sex.

“It’s a terrible show … but there was a couple in Connecticut, and they were looking for a studio closer than New York, and the producers out in L.A. hired me for that segment,” said Thibault, adding that it was shot in his studio in the cavernous Cabotville Industrial park in Chicopee.

He rarely does freelance work these days, primarily because Chris Teebo Films has secured enough work to keep him quite busy. And it comes from several sources.

For starters, there’s the commercials he’s shot for Big Y featuring Wilfork, the Springfield-based grocery chain’s main spokesperson. He’s now done five spots spotlighting the 350-pound lineman as pitchman for pizza and sandwiches, including one that aired during the recent Super Bowl.

Chris Thibault

Chris Thibault, seen here on location for a Big Y commercial featuring Vince Wilfork, has gained a number of new clients in recent years.

Thibault has also added a number of other commercial clients in recent years, including political candidates such as Lesser, who captured his seat last fall, and Mike Bissonnette, who served several terms as Chicopee’s mayor, as well as regional companies and nonprofits ranging from Doctor’s Express (a new client) to Spirit of Springfield; from United Way of Pioneer Valley to FastenMaster, a subsidiary of Agawam-based OMG Inc. that specializes in deck and trim screws and other products.

One wouldn’t expect deck screws to be the subject of video productions defined with the word ‘edgier,’ but Thibault said he’s managed to do just that.

To demonstrate, he went back to his computer and called up a video featuring Gary Daley, owner of America’s DeckBuilder, LLC, using FastenMaster products, one of several spots Teebo has produced in a series that has taken him all over the country.

“They’re showcasing pros that use their products, and it’s become a very effective way of promoting the brand,” he said, adding that he also creates “tips and tricks” videos for the company. “I think FastenMaster is brilliant in doing this; they’re creating content for this industry that doesn’t exist, and they’re giving people something to watch and something to aspire to.”

Overall, Thibault said his goal is to produce videos that, like the one for the Great Bull Run, get not only shares and likes on Facebook and YouTube (although those are important), but also results for the client.

In the case of the Great Bull Run, for example, his video was used by organizers of the event when they appeared on Shark Tank, and, Thibault believes, it helped them secure $1.75 million in funding from shark investor Mark Cuban.

“Barbara Corcoran [one of the show’s ‘sharks’] actually said, ‘what a great video’ right on the air, which is cool,” said Thibault, adding that he plans to put that footage and commentary on his revamped website.

To get results, Thibault says he has to trust his instincts, take risks when they’re appropriate (there are many times when they are not), and work with the client without being limited by its imagination.

“I try to create whatever I see in my mind without letting even a client hold me back,” he told BusinessWest. “Because, while I value clients’ opinions — they help me do my job better — sometimes they don’t know exactly what they want, and they’re using some kind of template as a model.”

That’s a Wrap

Looking ahead, Thibault said this industry moves too quickly and unpredictably for five-year plans, so he’s moving in much shorter increments.

His immediate goals are to continue building the portfolio, hiring additional staff (there is currently one full-time employee with others hired on a freelance basis), and advance those aforementioned plans for shared creative space.

“There’s some great creative talent in Western Mass., but people initially think they have to leave and go to New York or Boston to pursue a career,” he said. “My goal is to help keep some of that talent here.”

While doing that, he plans to go on taking risks, producing video with an edge to it, and focusing on the big picture, figuratively and quite literally.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
The Best Way to Contain Costs Is to Spend More Money

By GREG PELLERIN

A little boy sits down at the table next to his father and says, “hey, Dad, would you like to save some money?” Dad replies, “sure, what do you have in mind?” The little boy replies, “why not buy me a bike? Then I won’t have to wear my shoes out so fast!”

I told that joke to a CFO recently, and he offered me a rather reluctant smile. With all seriousness, I told him there may be more truth to that story than he might want to admit. I asked him to join me as we walked around the office, going from department to department, watching people toiling away at their computers. All he saw was too many people. All I saw was too much old technology.

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

There was a time, not too long ago, when you could get away with keeping the same hardware and software for five years or longer. It might take a licking, but as long as it was still ticking, there was no use in replacing it. As it aged, new technology and people were brought in to address cutting-edge applications, but because the old systems were deemed too important to the company’s core operation, they (and the people being paid to operate and maintain them) were left alone.  Things don’t work that way anymore, or at least they shouldn’t.

Today, older technologies are nothing but a drain on the operating budget because, from an OpEx perspective, they are fully depreciated. Headcount can’t be reduced because trained people are needed for operation of those old but critical systems.

The best way to break this endless IT cycle is to establish a regularly scheduled information-technology assessment and refresh process. As tough as it may be for your CFO to accept, spending money on new IT resources at regular intervals (as well as assessing the people needed to run them) eliminates the even more expensive and disruptive result of trying to fix everything at once.

It comes down to three basic areas: IT operations, network design, and equipment. Here’s a look at what a comprehensive IT-assessment process should entail to create an effective technology refresh plan.

• IT operations. Start by looking at the people and procedures you have in place to meet current and future business goals. Identify whether your network is fast enough and efficient enough to accomplish those objectives.  Interviews with key business and IT stakeholders are key elements of the process.
• Network design. Are your current network switching, routing, and security designs stable, safe, and secure? Are connectivity and controls in place to meet current needs, let alone future growth?
• Equipment. Conduct a complete cataloguing of organizational hardware (PC, server, and user-device inventory). Assess condition, expandability, life expectancy, and replacement cost. Identify technology gaps and ask if day-to-day operations are limited by your current infrastructure (for example, a printer that can only print 10 pages a minute and what implications 20-page-per-minute capability would have on productivity).

In the end, the goal is to provide a road map for leveraging IT as a competitive advantage. Establish a technology-refresh schedule, then stick to it.

Donald Trump once said that “sometimes the best investments are the ones you don’t make.” But when it comes to the regular assessment of your IT infrastructure, you might want to tell Donald, “you’re fired!”


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]

Sections Technology
Whalley Computer Associates Enjoys Rapid Growth

Paul Whalley (right, with Warehouse Manager Charlie Shaw)

Paul Whalley (right, with Warehouse Manager Charlie Shaw) says WCA can configure and deliver devices for any size client, from small companies to Fortune 500 firms.

When gauging his company’s place in the tech world, Paul Whalley says a little perspective is in order.

“I haven’t been to a Red Sox game where they chanted, ‘we’re number 200,’ but they don’t have 200,000 competitors,” said Whalley, vice president of Whalley Computer Associates (WCA) in Southwick, which has indeed grown from its humble origins to become the 200th-largest computer reseller in the country, placing it in the top one-tenth of 1% among approximately 200,000 players.

“I don’t think anyone pictured what this could come to,” he told BusinessWest, “but we’re very excited about where we’re going.”

Like virtually all other high-tech success stories, WCA’s beginnings were much more humble. As a part-time programming consultant in the Agawam school system in the 1970’s, math teacher John Whalley — Paul’s brother — purchased a small software-consulting firm. Working after school and during the summer from his Southwick basement, he built a small customer base.

Then, in 1979, incorporating his experience teaching his students programming on the school’s new computer, he started Whalley Computer Associates. He moved to new quarters in Southwick twice, all the while trying to convince his brother to come on board.

“My brother was a high-school math teacher, and he started this part-time,” Paul Whalley said. “I started helping him part-time, and he kept encouraging me to quit my job and go in full-time. I kept telling him, ‘I’ll quit my job when you quit yours.’”

In 1985, they did just that, with John (still the company’s president) leaving his teaching job and Paul resigning from his position as a programmer at MassMutual, in the process becoming WCA’s fourth employee. But the acquisition of customers such as Northeast Utilities, United Technologies, General Electric, and Cigna helped fund the company’s rapid growth, and WCA was on its way.

Today, Whalley boasts more than 3,000 clients, including 250 K-12 school systems, 50 colleges and universities, two dozen state agencies, more than 100 municipalities, and about 2,600 private companies — most of them small and medium-sized businesses, but also a number of major national firms.

Working out of its fourth Southwick location, a 62,500-square-foot facility on Whalley Way — as well as a 50,000-square-foot warehouse and configuration center in Westfield and an office in Milford serving Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island — WCA has recently broadened its reach across all of New England and Upstate New York, and shows no signs of slowing down.

“We want to grow in these new states exponentially, but also hold on to the valued clients we have,” Paul Whalley said. “We have so many clients who have stayed with us for 35 years.”

Rapid Growth

At a time when the economy was struggling to shake off the Great Recession, WCA thrived, posting sales growth of 50% in 2010, 38% in 2011, 50% in 2012, and 10% in 2013, and, boosted by recent expansion into New York, is on track to grow by at least 25% this year.

“Obviously, we think the model is working,” Whalley said. “We know the economy has not done well the last few years, but we’re growing.”

That growth has come on the heels of a significant evolution in what WCA does. What started as a software-consulting firm now manufactures computers and other devices for major brands. In so doing, WCA is the largest reseller of Lenovo products in the U.S. and has been the top reseller for Dell in the Northeast in five of the past 10 years.

WhalleySouthwick

Top: WCA’s 62,500-square-foot headquarters in Southwick. Bottom: the company’s Milford office, serving Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island.

Top: WCA’s 62,500-square-foot headquarters in Southwick. Bottom: the company’s Milford office, serving Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island.

“Fifteen years ago, we were primarily known as a a desktop deployment company. If a school needed 200 desktops or a business needed 10 or 25 or 500 desktops, we’d get them all prepared, imaged, configured, and delivered. But for the past 10 years, we’ve built up a very good engineering team and a strong professional-services group,” Whalley explained. “We were like everyone else 15 years ago; now we’re one of the leaders when it comes to designing, implementing, and then maintaining data centers.”

The expansion of WCA was boosted significantly when one of its Milford-based sales representatives, Peter Aldrich, began selling products to EMC Corp., which became, and remains, Whalley’s largest client.

In addition, “we have 12 Fortune 500 companies and a lot of very large businesses. Friendly’s has been a client for 25 years; we’re proud to have them as a client, and, I think, they’re proud they do business locally. We do business with one of the largest apparel retailers in North America; we’re a supplier to one of the largest pharmacy organizations in the U.S., one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., several retail organizations; we’re vendors to one of the largest technology companies in the world. There are probably 35 to 40 clients that we could name that everyone would recognize.”

The rest are the smaller type of business characteristic of the Pioneer Valley, which see value in WCA’s size and market position.

“We think our success really comes from focusing on providing tremendous value,” Whalley said, comparing WCA to the handful of what are known as direct marketing resellers, or DMRs, like CDW and TigerDirect.

“Although we’re smaller than them, we can match their pricing, and unlike them, we’re not mainly a telemarketing organization. It’s a different model, and I’m not knocking their model; they’re doing billions. But what our customers like about us versus them is that we can provide equal or even better pricing, but we’re a much more fast-moving, flexible, entrepreneurial company instead of a mega-corporation with lots of layers of management.”

The average computer reseller in the U.S. boasts 12 people and posts about $1 million in sales, Whalley noted, and WCA is in an enviable middle ground between them and the DMRs.

“We find ourselves in the sweet spot — there are maybe 50 like us in the country, in the middle, not small but not huge. I think that’s a perfect spot to be, where we have a combination of more resources than the small guys, but all the flexibility to move fast and customize with customers who are looking for that. Those mega-companies have their place, but we’ve found a very nice niche, and obviously, we’re in a good spot.”

Service First

WCA currently boasts 140 employees — 30 in sales and 100 focused on engineering, installation, maintenance, and support.

“I don’t know of anyone who has a service group of 110 people in New England or New York,” Whalley said. “We’re incredibly blessed with a very talented group of professionals, most of whom have been here more than 10 years. So, now that we’re moving into new states, we have a nice blend of seniority and people just getting into the industry.

“We’re a family company,” he added, “but we consider as family the long-time employees who’ve stuck with us.”

Those include a business-development team that makes outbound calls all day, “which the DMRs do, but not many people in our category do that. It’s a three-person team calling out all day, looking for business and appointments for our salespeople.”

Another way Whalley stays focused on growth is through some 30 training events a year intended to help its employees stay apprised of the latest technology.

“We consider ourselves customer-centric but vendor-agnostic,” he told BusinessWest. “We sell nearly all the major brands of the major products. We go in, listen to what the client needs and what their preferences are, and produce what we feel is the best solution. They may take the suggestion or buy something else; it’s their choice.”

WCA’s broad reach allows it to price competitively without being beholden to one brand, he explained. “I think people appreciate the fact that we’re not coming in telling them to buy this one thing. Frankly, if they want something and our product selection doesn’t match up, then we’ll tell them that. Ultimately, if we keep doing the right things for the client, we’ll succeed.”

He also recited a four-part creed posted over a set of warehouse doors on Whalley Way: “One: if in doubt, do what’s best for the customer. Two: if in doubt, do what’s right for the whole company. Three: if in doubt, do what’s best for your department. Four: if in doubt, do what’s best for you. Basically, the customer comes first. If you think of the customer first always, we’re going to do just fine.”

From the earliest days of working for his brother’s tiny company, Whalley has understood how important customer service is in the technology field.

“If your laptop breaks, you can probably use someone else’s for a day or so, or call and get it fixed. What really matters is that the network doesn’t go down. Take the cost of someone not working and multiply that by the size of your workforce, and it can cost a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “We have a top engineering team designing rock-solid data centers, and when there’s trouble, they can respond very quickly. It makes us a strategic partner with our clients; they buy things from us, but when problems occur, it’s on us to take care of them.”

Looking forward, Whalley said the company doesn’t want to rest on its laurels, but aims to move forward from a recent reorganization and several years of impressive growth to become an even more widely recognized name.

“On the engineering side, we’ve made huge strides, and we have one of the best engineering programs in the region,” he told BusinessWest. “We want to be one of the top two or three in New England and the Northeast. I think we’re headed that way, but there’s more work to be done.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s not about size, but service.

“We have to provide our clients with the best possible products at the best possible price with the best possible follow-up,” he said, “because, if we don’t, there are 200,000 others who would love to do it. We remind ourselves of that every day.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
This Is the Kind of Gift That Keeps on Giving

By GREG PELLERIN

Santa’s IT department is working overtime this Christmas, and the deals may look too good to pass up.  Walmart is selling a tablet for just $99, while the average selling price for a Windows PC is down more than 10% in the last year.

But before you go on that IT holiday spending spree, you may want to take a step back and take a look at your entire network. Cheap PCs may make for immediate gratification, but virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, could be the gift that keeps on giving.

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

Virtualizing company servers has become commonplace in today’s business IT world. In server virtualization, software is used to divide the physical server into multiple virtual environments so one machine can run multiple operating systems, cutting down on hardware, maintenance, and energy costs, and, in the end, allowing for more efficient data-center operations.

But the cost savings associated with virtualizing desktops may be even more dramatic. With VDI, PCs could be replaced by a simple keyboard, mouse, and screen because the virtualized desktop is stored on a ‘virtual machine,’ located on a centralized or remote server in the back room. That means the desktop image, the operating system, and all of an individual’s data are stored remotely, allowing an employee to use virtually any device, anywhere and at any time, to access their ‘computer.’

Employees are happier and more productive, and that smile on your CFO’s face is a result of not having to buy a new PC every time a new person joins the company. Talk about sugar plums dancing in your head.

Nowhere is the impact of VDI more evident than in the healthcare world.  Desktop virtualization has become essential for today’s demanding electronic health records (EHR) systems where the geographic distribution of clinical operations and new client devices like iPads and other mobile devices are bringing an end to the need for traditional PCs. Doctors and nurses are constantly on the move, and VDI allows them to access the same information, the same way, whether they’re in their office, in the ER, or even catching up on paperwork at home over the weekend.

New integrated capabilities like dictation and unified communications have eroded many of the initial gains offered by simple application streaming. Whether it’s doctors in a hospital or executives in a more traditional work setting, they all demand a highly personalized experience that supports all of their unique requirements. VDI makes it personal.

Then, there’s compliance. Business software systems are increasingly interlinked and must be kept current. Software updates must be applied promptly to stay compliant, and files must remain protected. Virtual desktops hosted on data-center servers provide greater control, availability, and manageability than distributed PCs while also ensuring there is no data saved on individual tablets or other devices that can be compromised or stolen.

PC sales are up nearly 20% over this time last year, and that’s good news for the industry. But as you hang out your stocking and evaluate that new round of technology purchases this holiday season, you may want to first take a look at VDI, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come.


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; [email protected]

Sections Technology
High-tech Gadgets Battle for Market Supremacy

TechDPartAs religious wars go, this one’s fairly bloodless.

“Cellphones are deeply personal,” David Pogue writes at Yahoo Tech. “When you buy a phone, you’re making an expensive bet. You can’t easily switch between the Google and Apple worlds; you’ve invested a lot in accessories, you’ve bought apps, you’ve learned that company’s software conventions. And you never want to think your phone is inferior, because then you might feel inferior. So you wind up taking a side in this phone duopoly. You join a very silly — and unwinnable — religious war.”

That may rank among the more intriguing analogies to the decision Americans make between iPhone and Android culture, but it may not be too much of a stretch; smartphones have become an omnipresent part of our lives, and the war between the industry leaders is increasingly heated with each new release. So that’s where we’ll begin this year’s overview of what’s new, hot, and well-reviewed in the world of technology and gadgets.

The iPhone 6 ($199 with a two-year contract) has received mostly rave notices from the tech press, and made waves because of a jump in size from the iPhone 5. (The iPhone 6+, released around the same time, is even larger.)

1iPhone6“There is explosive demand for bigger smartphones. A 4-inch smartphone feels small now; somewhere around 5 inches is the new normal,” notes David Pierce at The Verge. “Yet, too many large-screen phones are cumbersome, awkward, and often just plain bad. And Apple has a long history of taking good ideas with obviously huge markets and being the first manufacturer to really nail the execution.”

The result is impressive, the site notes, but not revolutionary. “There’s nothing truly ambitious here, no grand vision of the future or of a new way of living in the present. Apple doesn’t have better ideas about how to make use of more display real estate, or how to help users navigate a bigger device.”

Still, “for a variety of reasons, from the camera to the app ecosystem to the hardware itself, the iPhone 6 is one of the best smartphones on the market. Maybe even the best. But it’s still an iPhone. The same thing Apple’s been making for seven years. A fantastically good iPhone, but an iPhone through and through.”

Ewan Spence at Forbes is slightly more critical, noting that the phone gets the job done, but it feels more like a necessary step to keep Apple’s marketing machine moving than a purposeful step forward.

“The iPhone 6 does not feel ‘magical’ to me. It does not feel like ‘something only Apple could do.’ It feels like Apple has done the bare minimum to update the handset for late 2014, but has not committed to any major changes,” he writes. “That said, the iPhone 6 is still one of the easiest smartphones to use.”

Meanwhile, Samsung’s Galaxy S5 ($199), its 2014 upgrade for the Android crowd, features a bright, striking display, a very fast processor, and an excellent camera experience, writes Jessica Dolcourt at CNET.

2SamsungGalaxys5“Here’s why the Samsung Galaxy S5 should grab your attention: it looks good, it performs very well, and it has everything you need to become a fixture in nearly every aspect of your life. But, like a candidate running for re-election, the GS5 gets where it is today based on experience and wisdom, not on flashy features or massive innovation,” she notes. “The S5 is more of a Galaxy S4 Plus than it is a slam-the-brakes, next-generation device; it makes everything just a little smoother and faster.”

So, in all, there were no truly game-changing advances among the top two names in smartphones. But adherents of both don’t seem to mind.

“Celebrate the iPhone’s excellence, even if you’re not in the Apple fold. And celebrate the best work of Samsung, HTC, and LG, even if you’re not part of the Android family,” Pogue writes. “Because, in the end, competition is what will make your phone better this time next year, or the year after that. The perpetual refinement of ideas, and the necessity to think up new ones, will benefit you — no matter which army you march with.”

Tablets, Laptops, and Printers

3KindleFireHDX8.9Smartphones are far from the only tech battlefield, however. Tablets are becoming more sophisticated and hotly contested as well. Engadget considers Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 ($379) the current best choice, buoyed by a crisp screen, considerably bumped-up processing power, a rear-facing camera, slimmer hardware, and strong tech support. “It’s a pretty big splurge for a holiday gift,” reviewer Brian Heater notes, “but it’s a reasonable sum to ask for a tablet that hardly cuts any corners.”

Apple is deeply invested in the tablet game as well, of course, and the iPad Air 2 ($499) gets an improved processor, better rear and front-facing cameras, an even thinner and lighter design, an anti-reflective screen, a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and more built-in storage at higher configurations than last year’s model, according to CNET’s Scott Stein.

4AppleiPadAir2The Bad The Air 2 isn’t a big change from last year’s iPad in terms of overall function; battery life remains the same, although its battery life is already pretty good. Audio playback via speakers makes the thin metal body resonate more than before

“The iPad Air 2 is a nice refinement and finesse of last year’s model, with a bevy of tweaks, enhancements, a much faster processor, and the welcome addition of Touch ID. Simply put, it’s still the gold standard for tablets.”

5ToshibaChromebook2Today’s laptop computers — sleek, lightweight, and powerful — are constantly advancing as well. Laptop Magazine give its highest marks this year to the Toshiba Chromebook 2 ($329), praising its “stunning” display, “boisterous” sound, and compact design, while conceding that its graphics could be better.

“If you want a lightweight, stylish laptop that’s easy to use and tote around, this is a solid choice,” reviewer Valentina Palladino notes. “The Toshiba Chromebook 2 refreshes the original with a slimmer design, a gorgeous 1080p IPS display, and powerful speaker.”

6DellXPS13UltrabookTouchIn the windows category, PC World has plenty of praise for the Dell XPS 13. “It’s a bit pricey at $1,299 as configured, but that buys a sharp, nimble, and durable laptop with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, an SSD, and a 13.3-inch touchscreen display,” Bryan Hastings notes, while offering a demerit for its dearth of slots and ports, and battery life that leaves him looking for a wall outlet more often than he’d like. “But on the whole, it’s a terrific little machine.”

If laptops are available in a wide range of prices, the same is true of printers. PC Magazine gives top honors this year to the Dell B3465dnf Multifunction Laser Printer (now there’s a mouthful), which, at $970, is meant for a small to medium-size offices or workgroups.

7DellLaserPrinter“That said, if you have any doubts about its suitability for heavy-duty use, the rated maximum monthly duty cycle for printing, at 150,000 pages with a recommended maximum of up to 15,000 pages, should tell you everything you need to know,” writes reviewer David Stone. “Add in the fast speed on our tests, the reasonably high quality output, the 7-inch color touch-screen control panel, and the low cost per page, and it’s a compelling pick.”

For something less pricey, CNET is sticking with the HP Officejet 8600 Plus ($179), which has been around for two years but still tops the site’s ratings. “It prints professional-quality photos and documents quickly with versatile connectivity options and robust features like an auto-duplexer, cloud printing, and a legal-size scanning bay,” Justin Yu notes. “If you can find a desk to accommodate its large size, the … printer serves up top-shelf output quality at rapid print speeds, suitable for offices, home users, and photo enthusiasts hunting for an upgrade.”

Sights and Sounds

Whether for work or play, most Americans own a digital camera of some sort, but which to choose from the myriad options on the market?

8OlympusToughTG3PC Magazine especially praises the Olympus Tough TG-3 ($349), a mid-priced model it calls the best recreational camera it has tested, praising its wide-aperture lens, microscope macro mode, quick focus, burst shooting, waterproof capability, and more. Despite demerits for battery charging and audible zoom and focus on the soundtrack of videos, Jim Fisher writes, “the TG-3 is a worthy successor to its predecessor, and follows it as our editors’ choice for rugged compact cameras.”

9SonyCyberShotFor those with a significantly higher budget, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III ($799) is hard to beat, Fisher says, praising its high-ISO performance, a large image sensor, sharp wide-aperture lens, burst shooting, customizable controls, and large, tilting LCD.

“Sony’s RX series of compact cameras have wowed us with their small size and excellent image quality since the introduction of the original RX100. But that type of quality doesn’t come cheap, especially in a pocketable form,” he notes. “If you’re not quite willing to pay $800 for a pocket camera, the RX100 and RX100 II remain in the lineup and deliver similar image quality at a lower price.”

Finally, how about a personal soundrack for that photo shoot? News has been fairly quiet on the MP3-player front in 2014, although Apple is getting ready to unveil the sixth-generation iPod Touch in the coming months. Until then, the fifth-generation Touch remains a solid option, writes Tim Stevens at Engadget.
10iPodTouch
“The iPod touch is a comprehensively better package than the previous-gen unit, but at $299 to start, it certainly doesn’t come cheap,” he notes. “If you’re reasonably content with your fourth-gen, this is probably not worth the upgrade, but if you have an older iPod that’s ready for retirement, or are indeed just jumping on the iOS bandwagon for the first time and are happy with your current phone, this is a great place to start.”

For more reviews, just look them up on your smartphone. And give peace a chance.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
Negotiating a Telecom Contract Is a High-stakes Poker Game

By GREG PELLERIN

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

The IT department at Company A signs a new three-year contract renewal for local, long-distance, and data-network services, providing for a 25% discount off published rates. The contract is expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the current agreement, and the chief technology officer is commended for his hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners approach to negotiations.

Fast-forward six months. Company A’s CFO is having dinner with his counterpart at Company B. The subject of rising technology costs comes up in discussion, and Company A’s CFO is shocked to learn that Company B has just contracted to pay thousands of dollars less on its monthly telecom bill for essentially the same services, with the same provider.  

A call is placed to the telecom company, and the conversation goes something like this.  

“You told us if we signed this contract, we’d save 25%, but you didn’t tell us other companies were getting even bigger discounts, even though they spend less than we do.”

(Long pause)

“Uh…. yeah.  Well, you have two and a half years left on your contract, and we’ll see what we can do at that point.”

Company A will end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Company B for the same services even though they are a larger client.

Scenarios like this are playing out for businesses of all sizes across the country as skilled, in-house salespeople for the nation’s major telecommunications companies are front-loading renegotiated offers in an effort to lock businesses into new, long-term deals.  

“The carriers do this for a living, day in and day out,” says technology expert Darren DeMartino. “It’s a high-stakes poker game, and they’re dealing the cards. IT executives negotiate new telecom agreements only once every two or three years. It’s unrealistic to expect they’ll be as effective as someone who does it day in and day out. Carrier representatives are trained to maintain as much margin as possible and directed by a compensation plan that penalizes them for lowering prices.”  

The typical telecom contract covers three years, and much can change over the course of that term. If the past few years are any indication, pricing will continue to go down as new technology, features, and functionality become mainstream. DeMartino offers the following tips for approaching any telecom renegotiation process.

• Insist on eliminating auto-renewal language. Most telecom contracts (as well as some other agreements) have an auto-renewal clause that will lock you into another term period unless you notify the carrier within a predetermined window of time. Push for a month-to-month extension (guaranteed at the same rate), or accept removal of this language altogether.

• Look for agreements that provide significant revenue-commitment flexibility. If guaranteeing more than 70% of your current spend, you could be locking yourself into a situation that the carriers will take advantage of down the road.

• Shop around. The big boys (Verizon, Comcast, ATT) are not the only games in town, and, in fact, there are literally hundreds of telecom providers in the U.S. Universally, telecom costs have been decreasing more than 20% a year. The compounding effect over the course of a three-year agreement is significant, yet many businesses re-up at the first offer they get from their incumbent provider, leaving significant savings on the table.

• Negotiate co-terminous agreements wherever possible. It’s always to a company’s advantage to have the various types of service agreements terminate at the same time. Be leery of subcommitments (i.e. an overall commitment, and then a smaller commitment for each different service type). Failure to fulfill a small commitment in one category could result in significant penalties overall.

• When in doubt, hire an expert to handle negotiations. Bring them in from the start of negotiations or after you’ve done the heavy lifting. In most instances, they can evaluate an offer within 48 to 72 hours and ensure the absolute best deal is on the table.

You don’t have to wait until your contract is up in order to renegotiate better terms. The telecom world is more competitive than ever, and it may be easier to strike a deal well before a contract expires. It’s always easier for a provider to keep a current customer than find a new one. Use that knowledge to your advantage.

On the old Let’s Make a Deal show, contestants were always hesitant to take Monty Hall’s first offer for fear of getting ‘zonked.’ In today’s complex telecom environment, that fear is well-founded indeed.

Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, a Holyoke-based business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firm; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]

Sections Technology
Anzovin Studio Stays on the Cutting Edge of Animation Technology

By KEVIN FLANDERS

Raf Anzovin, left, and David Boutilier

Raf Anzovin, left, and David Boutilier, with an image they created for an American Canoe Assoc. public service announcement.

Raf Anzovin, president of Northampton-based Anzovin Studio, has discovered that success in the animation industry comes to those who push their businesses to the edge — the cutting edge of technology.

Dedicated to supplying an array of services to clients while regularly improving the tools with which they create their products, the Anzovin Studio staff has mastered an ingenious two-pronged approach. Even when business is thriving, the company challenges itself to refine its practices and streamline its productivity, which serves to benefit both artists and clients.

“It’s amazing to look back and see how far animation has come in the last 15 years,” said Anzovin, who opened the studio in 2000 with his father, Steven Anzovin. “When you compare movies like the first Toy Story to current movies, you’ll see a huge difference in the quality of the characters and the exactness in the way they move. The industry has progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of the quality you’re expected to create. Something that would have been considered good in the ’90s would be viewed as well below average today.”

With that truth constantly in mind, Anzovin and his staff strive each year to develop new software that not only benefits Anzovin Studio artists but also draws the interest of clients. One of the studio’s latest and most successful software products, Anzovin Rig Tools, is expected to provide major advances in the area of character rigging. Because Anzovin’s software programmers and artists work in close collaboration, each new plug-in tool and application serves a specific need, with the ultimate goal of making computer-animated characters as seamless and believable as possible.

“We’re very excited about it — this particular area of animation hasn’t had significant upgrades since the ’90s,” Anzovin said of the new product, which has not yet been brought to market.

If the success of the studio’s previous products is any indication, then Anzovin Rig Tools will be utilized by some of the most prominent players in the industry. In past years, companies like Dreamworks, Disney, and Sony have bought Anzovin’s products, while the studio has consulted with clients like Microsoft, EA, and Hasbro.

“There are certain areas like character rigging where we are really pushing the technology,” added Anzovin, who takes pride in spearheading technological advances.

In short, he told BusinessWest, companies that fail to keep up with the breakneck speed of invention in this industry find it doesn’t take long to fall behind.

Products on All Platforms

In addition to its software-design work, Anzovin Studio produces educational and entertainment content through several media each year. Its art can be seen in everything from commercials to public-service announcements to video games, depending on the client and the request.

Last year, the studio supplied animation for a PSA run by the American Canoe Assoc., a piece that employed cartoon-like characters to convey water-safety tips in a unique manner.

“A lot of times, clients come to us looking to create PSAs that get the point across but also have entertainment value,” said Jake Mazonson, an artist and producer at the studio. “Animation is a good tool to communicate information in a fun, engaging way.”

Anzovin said the studio usually produces art for a handful of TV commercials each year, but that number might rise in future years, because the amount of content featuring animation is expected to increase. With the popularity of video sharing and downloading, the Internet is also a source of boundless potential for animators, especially when distributed across social-media platforms.

Meanwhile, video games have generated solid business as well, with the studio providing cut-scene animations for such games as Halo II, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code, The Sims Medieval, and Mercenaries II, among others.

“One of the great things about animation is that it can be used as a communication tool but also for entertainment — we often bring those two aspects together in our projects,” Anzovin said.

But the staff’s emphasis isn’t always on fun and entertainment when it comes to video games. The studio frequently contributes animations for instructional games and programs designed for individuals preparing to deal with hazardous law-enforcement and military situations. A recently released training program for the Department of Defense, for example, included art created by Anzovin’s staff to help simulate civilian populations in various locations. The tool will help soldiers learn how to defuse potentially dangerous encounters in highly populated areas.

“It’s really nice when we can help solve problems and serve social purposes,” added Mazonson, who is excited to be working on a new project with the American Canoe Assoc. — an animated memoir of individuals recounting their stories from the water. The project will be funded by a grant allocated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

How It Works

The concepts and methods that drive computer animation can be a little tricky to understand — if not downright mind-boggling at times — but Mazonson described the complexities of creating character-rigging products in remarkably simple terms.

“It’s a lot like making a puppet, with the strings and all of the different parts,” he told BusinessWest. “You have to figure out how to arrange everything in such a way that others will be able to use it.”

Anzovin believes one of the major keys to successful animation is to become a master of movement. Many movie animators have perfected the art to such a degree that, from a distance, animated characters can often be mistaken for actors. Their movements are swift and natural, seemingly enhanced with each movie.

“The goal is to present movement in a believable way,” Anzovin said. “One of the things that movies like Frozen and Tangled do well is combine the subtleties that are possible in computer animation with the graphic quality of movement. At times, you’re trying to create something that is more lifelike and exciting than life itself.”

So how long does it take to create such vivid animations? In terms of average project length — from the initial design stages to completion — a variety of factors come into play. Sometimes a project can be finished in just a few weeks, while other endeavors can last up to two years.

“It depends on the scope of the project and what the client is asking for,” said David Boutilier, vice president of Anzovin Studio. “Every project has a different script and style, and each client has a different level of experience. Some people are experts, while others only have a little experience in animation. All of those things affect how long it takes.”

ACAmasterComp00172

Above, imagery created by Anzovin Studio for the American Canoe Assoc. Below, animation created for client Squelch Inc.

Above, imagery created by Anzovin Studio for the American Canoe Assoc. Below, animation created for client Squelch Inc.

Raf Anzovin never spent a day in a college classroom, but he wound up teaching collegiate courses. He didn’t attend high school, either. Homeschooled and self-taught in the world of computer animation, he found this industry to be an open road for an 18-year-old going into business with his father. The possibilities offered in this new, exciting, undeveloped terrain were limitless, the perfect career choice for technologically inclined artists like Anzovin whose passion and ambition are matched only by their creativity.

“Everything was just starting up back then — a wild west,” he recalls. “Even if you had basic abilities in animation, you could make a name for yourself. Everything has come a long way since then.”

After exploring various institutions, Anzovin decided not to attend college because there weren’t many computer-animation programs available. Instead, he went to work with his father, starting off in Amherst and eventually moving into the studio’s current Nonotuck Mill office in 2009. Now, five years after calling the Florence section of Northampton home, the business has become an industry leader in technological innovation, with major companies routinely turning to Anzovin and his staff for consultation.

“The tools you have determine how quickly you can produce things, which is one of the reasons why we create our own products,” Anzovin said. “Animation is a very time-consuming process, but the way we approach it, by developing our own tools, certainly gives us an advantage.”

Added Mazonson, “technology and art are constantly interacting with everything we do.”

Branching Out

Over the next few years, Anzovin hopes to continue consulting with his studio’s partners and also to build new relationships, preferably with local businesses. As one of the only companies in the region focusing heavily on character animation, most of its clients are based outside Massachusetts, many of them in different time zones.

“I think one of the reasons [for the low number of local clients] is a lack of exposure,” Mazonson said. “A lot of people don’t know there’s an animation studio right here in Western Mass.”

One project that might help raise the studio’s profile  will take place in the coming year — a collaboration with representatives from Google. Though Anzovin couldn’t get into much detail about the project, he said it will likely involve mobile devices and the creation of tools.

Judging by how far animation has progressed in the last decade, in addition to Anzovin Studio’s commitment to innovation, the company will likely be redefining industry standards for years to come.

Sections Technology
Hogan Technology Is in the Business of IT Solutions

Sean, left, and Andrew Hogan

Sean, left, and Andrew Hogan have been in business since 1986 and keep pace with innovative technology that helps their clients.

Many companies experience frustration and setbacks when a problem occurs with their computer, Internet, or telephone system. And if all three stop working simultaneously, as many did during the freak October snowstorm of 2011, company officials often don’t know which provider to call first.

Sean and Andrew Hogan, who co-own Hogan Technology in Easthampton, have solved that problem. Their company’s motto is, “why call three companies when you can call one?”

In fact, they have flipped the way the typical repair model operates. Rather than waiting for a problem to occur, then responding to it, Hogan employees constantly monitor clients’ Internet-technology systems, which allows them to identify problems and resolve them before the client is even aware they exist.

“Technology is imperfect, and it is inevitable that things will go wrong,” Sean said. “If they didn’t, there would be no need for our company. But we understand that, if a business’ computer or phone system goes down, they are out of business until the problem is fixed, so our emphasis is on managed service. What makes us different from other companies is that we provide a comprehensive, bundled solution.”

That requires expertise in many areas. “There are a lot of parts and pieces to technological systems, and it can be very confusing,” said Sean. “So we become a company’s management team, which relieves a lot of duties for office managers or people assigned to the job.”

He added that this is especially important for small firms that do not have a full-time Internet-technology expert. “One person in the office usually gets assigned to support its IT system because that person enjoys working with computers. But the Internet is vast and has so many specialties, one person alone cannot have enough knowledge to fix every problem,” he told BusinessWest.

It can also be difficult for employees who don’t know the language used by computer experts to talk to a software representative, especially since so many companies run specialized software related to their industry.

But Hogan Technology has a bevy of experts who handle these issues.

“We monitor everything related to a company’s systems,” said Sean. “Our team receives an alert on potential outages, so we address them before they become a problem. By being proactive, we are partnering with our clients. And if we keep their business up and running, they are happy.”

He added that this approach saves time and money. “Our model has really evolved; the old way of doing things was to have a company call when something broke, then run out to fix it. But the hourly cost of doing that can be very expensive. A company could go several months with very small bills, then have a major failure. And since businesses can’t live without technology, they have to pay to fix the problem.”

To eliminate that issue, Hogan Technology charges a monthly fee, which helps clients avoid unexpected charges.

The company also has a full-time employee dedicated to customer support who spends her time calling clients to check how their systems are running. “She’s an advocate for them,” Sean said.

Another unusual service is free: lifetime employee training. “Whenever there is a turnover in staff or a new person is hired, we send in a trainer. The people who use our equipment should be our biggest fans,” said Andrew, noting that, if individuals find the training easy to understand, they become proponents of Hogan Technology, which can translate into word-of-mouth advertising.

“We implemented lifetime training because we heard so many customers complain about technology they had been using in the past,” he went on. “They told us they didn’t know how to use it or keep it up to date.”

Keeping Pace

Hogan Technology was founded in 1986 as Hogan Associates by John Hogan and his sons, Sean and Andrew.

The idea for the family business was born after John gave Sean an article to read about the ethernet, which was the newest technology at the time. He was in college, saw it as an opportunity to create a business dedicated to the professional installation of communications systems, and said the trio’s skills fit well with the vision.

At the time, John was retired after 35 years in the communications industry, and he and Sean were working part-time doing computer networking for a local firm, while Andrew was in sales.

“No one had ethernet networking, but everyone needed it, so we were able to get a lot of work,” Sean recalled, adding that, prior to that development, there was no industry standard for cables and wiring, so communication systems could not be linked.

The company quickly became profitable. “In the early years, we had no competition — we all wore tool belts and were laborers,” Sean said, recalling how personal computers replaced terminal servers and high-speed cables were required to support developing technology.

Since its humble beginnings, the company has kept pace with change and gone above and beyond for its clients. For example, years ago, it was not uncommon for Sean and Andrew to drive the company’s bucket truck several hours to fix a problem for a customer on a weekend.

“We take our business very seriously,” Sean told BusinessWest, reiterating that they realize it’s essential for businesses to stay operational at all times.

In time, the name Hogan Associates was changed to Hogan Communications, then changed again to Hogan Technology to reflect the work they were doing.

The company has won a number of awards, and today its ideal client is a business owner who allows Hogan to manage and support all of the company’s technology. The brothers are proud of the service they provide, and in 27 years, they have never had a year in which they lost money.

Part of this success is due to their dedication to maintaining seamless service, which can include overseeing technology needs that change due to a move or expansion. “We specialize in helping customers move. It’s a stressful time for them,” Sean said.

Before the physical move takes place, Andrew examines drawings of the new space and makes recommendations about the cabling the client will need to handle its audiovisual and conference needs. He also checks the wi-fi capability of the building and provides a design for security infrastructure.

“We look at everything that plays into their computer network and consult with them about what they need,” Sean said.

They also deal with their Internet service. “We sell and support every Internet provider, and because we are a master agent, we are able to customize solutions. After all that is complete, we coordinate the physical move of the technology and connect it so the customer has very little or no down time,” Sean said.

For example, the firm was hired to partner with Benchmark Carbide in Springfield when the company moved to a new location. “They needed someone who could handle all aspects of their technology,” Sean explained, adding that this included their phone system, computer networking, and computer installation.

Continued Support

The company currently has 21 employees and about 700 clients. In the past, it limited its customer base to businesses within a three-hour drive, but today Hogan has clients across the nation and handles their international phone systems.

“For example, we have a customer in Agawam with offices in Europe,” Sean explained. “We set up a voice-over-IP system that connects their phones through one network.”

The company’s resources are further enhanced by membership in the Technology Assurance Group, comprised of 105 communication companies in North America who work together. “We are like a brotherhood and provide support to each other,” said Sean.

Andrew agreed. “We attend owners meetings, which allow us to find out what is working well in the industry and what is not working. A lot of things come and go, and we approach every item we sell with the belief that there needs to be a return on investment for our clients.

“If we can prove the equipment we offer them will make their company more productive, efficient, and drive profits, we truly are partners with them,” he added, noting that the affiliation “also gives us buying power so we can compete with larger companies.”

Hogan Technology strives to develop long-term relationships and has clients who have been with them for 20 years. “We meet with every customer quarterly to see what their pain points are and help them forecast what they will need to keep active and productive,” Andrew said. “Then we develop a plan based on their budget and needs. They might not be able to get everything at once, but we come up with a solution and implement it so they can add things as their budget allows.”

Autumn Leshinski

Autumn Leshinski works full-time as a customer advocate and calls clients to make sure their systems are running smoothly.

Sean said this is important because many companies have had buyer’s remorse after purchasing technology that became outdated quickly. “We become a trusted advisor to them because technology is our business,” he explained.

They also hold frequent educational seminars to keep clients abreast of major changes, such as cloud-based voice services. “During the October 2011 snowstorm, many services were down, but the cloud was never down. And the beauty of having this service is that, if an event like that occurs, we can redirect all of a company’s phone lines to their cell phones or to a temporary office; it’s part of a disaster plan we set up for each client,” Sean said.

Their own back-up plan includes an office in South Carolina as well as a virtual server in the cloud.

Master Plan

Although Hogan Technology cannot control everything that happens to a client’s information-technology system, Sean said, it can resolve any problems related to it.

“In order for a company to stay up and running, it needs a partner in technology — someone who is committed to the relationship and has the resources to support them,” he said. And when that company is Hogan Technology, he said, assurances that all is well are sure to be met.

Sections Technology
When It Comes to IT, Responsibility Is Reaching to the Top

By GREG PELLERIN

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

When it comes to your company’s IT infrastructure, whose job is it, anyway? Who takes the blame (or maybe even the fall) if something goes wrong? More and more, responsibility for an IT failure is reaching all the way to the executive suite.

In May, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel resigned after a major data-security breach. Some said it wasn’t his fault, but the company’s board disagreed, saying it was a result of underinvestment in Target’s IT systems. The Associated Press quoted Daniel Ives, analyst for FBR Capital Markets, who said, “ultimately, it’s the CIO and the IT managers that are really more in the weeds, but just like the head coach of a football or basketball team that doesn’t make the playoffs, the CEO is ultimately responsible.”

And consider the case of James Thaw, president and CEO of Athens Regional Health System in Georgia. Thaw’s organization, like almost every hospital in America, had invested millions in implementation of an electronic health record (EHR) system. Whether there was pressure on the IT department to roll out the new software before it was fully tested is unclear, but according to the Athens Banner-Herald, the result was near-chaos.

Physicians sent a formal letter of complaint to the hospital’s administration claiming the implementation process was too aggressive and resulted in “medication errors, orders being lost or overlooked, emergency-department patients leaving after long waits, and an inpatient who wasn’t seen by a physician for five days.”

The letter was published less than two weeks after the hospital’s PR department proudly touted the new, integrated system as “the most meaningful and largest-scale information-technology system in its 95 year history.”

Thaw and Chief Information Officer Gretchen Tegethoff have since resigned.  Whether they were responsible for pressing the ‘go live’ button prematurely is unknown. Most hospitals contract with a team of external consultants who sit alongside representatives of the institution’s medical and administrative staff to oversee implementation over a one- to four-year timeframe. The fate of those consultants and team members is unknown.

So, what’s an executive to do? Most CEOs got to where they are because of their strategic abilities, not necessarily their technical strengths. What questions should they be asking their staff regarding major IT decisions?

“It comes down to two words: integration and communication,” said Michael Feld, president of VertitechIT, a nationally renowned expert consultant in IT management, and the acting chief technology officer at Lancaster General Hospital.  “IT is the engine that keeps an organization running, but oftentimes, CEOs will treat the department as a necessary evil.  Your IT people need to know where the company is going and how technology will play a role in that growth. When they don’t, you’ve got problems.”

Feld offers up three areas of advice on how to avoid an IT disaster that could have implications in the C-suite and the entire company:

• You wouldn’t think of launching a new sales or product initiative without announcing and getting buy-in from the sales and marketing departments. Integrate your IT department in the same way. Make sure everyone, from your chief information officer to front-line system engineers, understand issues that affect the life of the company.  Everyone should understand IT’s role in achieving those goals.

• Plan an off-site retreat with your CIO. He or she is, after all, no different than the CEO, one level down. Senior company executives need to know what your network can do, not necessarily how it’s done. Place the focus on understanding risks, benefits, costs, and the relationships all of them have to each other.

• Put your personal biases on the shelf. That new company initiative may have been born in your office, but it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that IT can just make it happen. Keep asking questions and challenge whether your internal systems and people are ready to press ‘go.’ Is there a fail-safe, redundant backup plan in place when something goes wrong? Are your internal people trained and fluent in its operation, and are there outside resources lined up for those special situations? If the answer is no, find out why.

No one wants to just throw money at a problem, hoping it will go away. But you can’t fight a fire without a long enough hose, and that new fire truck will be useless if there’s not enough water coming from the hydrant. In the end, it’s the chief that will take responsibility if things spin out of control. To paraphrase Smokey the Bear, ultimately, you can prevent forest fires. n


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]om

Sections Technology
Web Design Is Only Part of the Game at Gravity Switch

Christine Mark

Christine Mark, co-founder, graphic designer, and budding ukulele player at Gravity Switch.

Gravity Switch may be known for websites, Christine Mark said, but clients are often surprised to discover where conversations about those sites lead.

“Yes, we’re working on the public face of a company or organization, but we always want to talk about what their business challenges are, what they’re trying to do, what are their metrics of success. The work we do needs to help drive those things forward in some way. If it’s not, it doesn’t make sense to pursue it,” said Mark, who started Gravity Switch in 1996 with her husband, Jason (the company’s creative lead and a BusinessWest 40 Under Forty winner in 2011) and one of his high-school friends.

“We were three kids out of college, not unlike how a lot of startups begin, a bootstraps operation with wires hanging from the ceiling,” she told BusinessWest. “But our core ideals and why we’re here haven’t changed, even though the landscape around us has changed tremendously. We’ve matured as a company as we approach our double-decade milestone, but we still follow those ideals of doing work that we love, that’s meaningful, for people and organizations that we believe in and care about.”

And they draw on their own business experience to approach web design and a range of other high-tech services from a broad perspective.

“The end product might be a website, or it might be a website plus a mobile version of the site, or responsive design where the display and content are dynamically reformatted depending on whether it’s on a desktop, tablet, smartphone, whatever the case may be,” she said. “Or we might develop print pieces to accompany a web launch, or user testing and a usability study with a findings report, where we can leverage what we learn in that process. There might be a social-media strategy; we can offer a lot to clients in terms of how to approach their social media.”

All these elements — design, branding, messaging, technology — are spokes on the same wheel, and at the center is a company’s goals.

“The clients we work with feel really excited and energized to articulate who they are and what makes them great,” Mark told BusinessWest. “I’ve heard clients say to us, ‘we thought coming to you would help us with this marketing and technology issue, but then you helped us figure out how to position our products differently.’”

For this issue’s focus on technology, BusinessWest visits a Northampton-based company known for its cutting-edge work, its civic conscience, and — did she just break out a ukulele? — sense of fun.

Evolving World

At the start, Gravity Switch wasn’t as broad in its goals; in fact, it didn’t even focus on websites, its eventual bread and butter. In its first year, about 95% of the company’s work was graphics, animation, and video for CD-ROM and other platforms.

“My, how that’s flip-flopped,” said Mark. “In 1996 or 1997, if you told someone you were doing websites, a lot of people didn’t understand what that meant. You had to do a lot of explaining.”

She recalled someone who called that first year, struggling to articulate his question before asking, “do you have the Internet there?”

The Internet has, obviously, become much more pervasive since then, but Gravity Switch has evolved in some key ways as well.

“Now, I can say to someone, ‘we do websites,’ and stop there, but it wouldn’t do justice to it,” she said. “What we do is build web and mobile and digital experiences — and we’ve really moved over to print as well — that are rooted in business marketing, branding, and messaging strategy. To pull it off right, it’s not just websites.”

The Marks and their 10-person team focus on three key sectors: higher education — they’ve done website work for Yale, Dartmouth, UMass, Smith, Asuntuck Community College, and many other institutions — nonprofitsm, and businesses, ranging from local entrepreneurs to large corporations.

“We’re a good match for people who are forward-thinking, energetic, and like to get things done, because that describes us,” she said. “We’re not afraid of hard work, and we bring a lot of energy and expertise to the mix.”

For the most part, Mark explained, Gravity Switch doesn’t build first websites for companies, unless the client is a startup. Instead, they tackle the challenge of redesign, of making a site powerful, visible, and adaptable in a more complex Internet landscape.

“Between 2000 and 2005, we were doing first websites; companies came to us, wanting to embark on the web, and there was a lot of education to convey — why it’s important, why it matters, and what things don’t matter.

“It’s a much savvier client base today,” she continued. “I can say ‘CMS,’ and most of our points of contact — directors of marketing, directors of IT, presidents and CEOs — they’ll understand that CMS means content-management system. We used to have to define what that meant even five years ago. Now, they know what that means and maybe have some experience working with them.”

A CMS is essentially a program that allows users to publish content on the web, and even do-it-yourself programs have become more sophisticated, she said, citing Squarespace as a good example.

“There are design constraints imposed by Squarespace templates, but it’s a pretty powerful tool. What it doesn’t bring, though — and what you always need a human for — is the strategic part, the thinking, the messaging. No technology is able to hear what the client is saying and listen between the lines. No technology can replace that and add good copywriting and photography.”

Two basic questions Gravity Switch asks clients is what they want people to know, in terms of data and facts, and what they want people to feel — what impressions they want to convey ­— when users access their site.

“When you start conversations with these questions, some really interesting, powerful things come out of it, versus coming out of it thinking, ‘I need a website, and I want it to be blue.’ We don’t pick blue; we pick ‘businesslike’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘edgy’ or other things,” she said, adding that it’s important to test design ideas with different audiences before going live. “It’s the mantra of ‘fail early and fail often’ when it’s not that expensive to fail and it’s pretty inexpensive to correct course.”

All aspects of design and testing have become more complicated in the new mobile world, where consumers are constantly accessing the Internet on the go. Mark said Gravity Switch designs apps for mobile devices, but because their budget isn’t always matched by an immediate return on investment — after all, most apps are offered for free — they are not always an attractive option.

More important, she noted, is a mobile-friendly or mobile-streamlined website, which might include anything from minimizing form entry to streamlining screen real estate, to making sure the company’s phone number is findable and tappable. “The dexterity available in the mobile environment is more limited, and that needs to be taken into consideration.”

Clients need to ask themselves what their mobile audience is — the difference between 1% and 20% can change the way they prioritize a mobile-streamlined site — but it’s becoming at least a consideration for almost everyone.

“Maybe four years ago, the question was, ‘do we think we need mobile?’ Now it’s ‘what do we need to do about mobile?’” she said. “It’s part of the landscape, and it’s an opportunity to be leveraged or missed.”

Fun with a Purpose

Mark repeatedly came back to her company’s philosophy, which has remained steady over 18 years of otherwise dynamic industry change. “We work with organizations we care about and believe in. When it comes down to it, we like working with organizations we think are making a good impact on the world. Nonprofits are exciting for us, education is exciting, and we work with businesses we like. We’re very passionate about the work we do.”

She added that she and Jason have built their own team in a similar way, choosing talented individuals who bring with them a passion for their work.

“In terms of how we hire and the expectations we have for our team members, the people at Gravity Switch are in the roles where they get to do what they do best every single day,” she said. “That’s really a core part of our hiring philosophy and career-development philosophy.”

In addition to 10 full-time employees and a few part-timers — what she referred to as a “good, strong team of designers, developers, lead strategists, people who do content, and project managers” — the firm also works with a number of outside contractors, including videographers, photographers, additional content writers, and designers, to regulate the workload.

While Gravity Switch — which was named, whimsically, after a Shel Silverstein poem — has become a well-known name in Northampton and beyond, it seeks to be part of the community in ways that go beyond business.

“We contribute to the world around us through group volunteer work — a couple of times, we’ve helped Habitat for Humanity build houses — and we donate 15% of our corporate profits every year to charity; our employees help direct the funds,” Mark said, adding that the Make-A-Wish Foundation has benefited recently as well, with Gravity Switch paying for three of the 50 wishes granted last year by the local chapter.

Taking a page out of Alan Robinson’s book Ideas Are Free, the company has also formalized a process for generating ideas to help people. Every other week, the staff gathers to pitch ideas for making people’s lives better, doing things more efficiently, helping clients save money, or just have fun — with the caveat that all ideas must cost under $30 and take less than 30 minutes to implement, the concept being that more complicated, expensive plans are less likely to be put into action. “It’s another piece of sharing the work we’re doing with each other,” Mark said.

In other words, it’s a fun, open, and progressive place to work, she said, one where she feels free to break out her ukulele to jog her creativity.

“We’re all avid learners with different areas of interests. It’s part of our culture, that energy we bring. I’m grateful for our people, this team, and our culture. Jason and I are the business owners, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it’s the people who create that culture. It’s a fun group — a hard-working group, but we like to laugh and enjoy work, too.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
Understand the Pros and Cons of Technology Investments

By GREG PELLERIN

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

Bill Gates and the president of General Motors were having lunch. Gates boasted of the innovations his company had made. “If GM had kept up with technology the way Microsoft has, we’d all be driving $25 cars that get 1,000 miles per gallon.”

“I suppose that’s true,” the GM exec agreed. “But would you really want your car to crash twice a day?”

I think of this story whenever we’re asked by a client to justify the return on their technology investment. The latest and greatest may be better, but is it right for you, and how will it show up on the bottom line?

Take the healthcare industry, for example. Institutions are spending hundreds of millions — and, in some cases, billions — of dollars to meet new federal electronic healthcare (EHR) guidelines. Taxpayer dollars are in part funding the transition so that doctors can talk to the emergency room, radiology can talk to oncology, nurses can talk to the pharmacy, and everybody can talk to the accounting department.

Linking all systems together will invariably help improve patient care and no doubt provide accountability when it comes to paying for it all. That should help Washington’s bottom line as well as those of the insurance industry. But what about the hospitals? Hundreds of millions of dollars in up-front expense and tens of millions of dollars in annual system maintenance costs later, will it all be worth it?

A discussion on the subject took place recently on a LinkedIn forum, and the arguments for and against, can, quite frankly, be made for any business, inside or outside the healthcare world.

The Pros

• Technology reduces fraud, waste, and abuse;

• When used correctly, inter-department communication will drastically improve, making for a more efficient organization and happy customers (patients); and

• New-data analysis can identify strengths and weaknesses, driving process improvement and lowering costs.

The Cons

• The cost of installing and integrating software that, in the case of EHR, runs $250 million. An additional $30 million a year will need to be spent to keep it all running. That can only be recouped, some say, through massive cutbacks in personnel (either that, or as one online-forum participant suggested, “reduce the average physician’s salary by $100,000 a year!” That’s not going to happen).

• The system is broken. Hospitals, like many businesses, are being asked to improve quality even though they will need to spend more to operate and be paid less to do it.

Ask the Right Questions

So how do you judge ROI when it comes to a technology investment for your business? Start by doing a thorough LEAN analysis of your organization and industry. Begin by asking yourself two simple questions:

Why am I doing this? It may be something thrust upon you by the state or federal government, an industry group, the age and/or performance of your existing infrastructure, or security concerns.

How will it make my business better? Technology is often touted as making an organization more efficient, augmenting existing or opening up new capabilities, or allowing for increased capacity.

If you’re satisfied with the answers, make sure you then have a solid understanding of your existing network, because that needs to be the benchmark for your comparison. You don’t have to join the local ‘geek squad,’ but you should be asking the bits-and-bytes experts for a reasonable overview of your current systems, processes, and personnel. If you can’t understand it, tell them to go back to the drawing board. Throw out the acronyms and have them make their pitch again. You want an understanding of all the hardware and software you’re using today. You want assurances that all processes are documented and reviewed for optimal performance. And, finally, you want to know that you have the right team in place to run what you have now and handle the changes ahead.

With all of these answers in hand, you can now weigh the capital expense of the hardware or software against the resulting increases in operating expense and determine if the spending is appropriate for your business size and complexity.

Return on investment is not a simple ‘A + B’ calculation. But if you follow the process, you just may keep your ROI from turning into an IOU


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]

Sections Technology
New York Sound and Motion Invests in the Big Picture

Ed Brown

Ed Brown recently invested in the Sony F55 digital camera, and has targeted Hollywood film productions in Massachusetts as future clients.


When Ed Brown interned for a neighbor’s lighting and gaffing business during one of his college summers home on Long Island, it proved to be a turning point in his life.

He spent the summer of 1989 on the set of the movie Quick Change, starring Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid. “I worked as a production assistant, and I caught the bug,” recalled Brown, who is now owner of New York Sound and Motion (NYSM), a West Springfield-based, high-end video, TV, and radio production studio.

With almost 25 years of experience under his belt in lighting, filming, and editing, Brown handles production for local clients such as Marcotte Ford, the Eastfield Mall, Rocky’s Ace Hardware, Gary Rome Auto Group, and UTC Aerospace (maker of spacesuits for NASA), as well as educational and healthcare systems, political campaigns, and specialty productions for events like the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s enshrinement ceremony. He recently invested thousands of dollars in a state-of-the-art digital camera and the necessary support equipment in what he calls a “calculated move” that will bring him full circle, back to the movie-production process that started it all.

Indeed, NYSM is poised, and equipped, to position Brown as a cinematographer, in addition to offering elite production services to some of the largest companies in the world. As his NYSM promotional demo on YouTube states to prospective clients, “you can make it here in Western Massachusetts!”

“I’m going after all the big guns here, and I want them to realize that there is a lot of talent with the right equipment in their backyard; they don’t need to run to Boston or New York for ultra-high-end production,” said Brown, adding that his work is also his hobby, which means he’s always reading and researching the newest products, even on his limited days off.

“I’m able to talk the talk and walk the walk with the big boys,” he told BusinessWest, “but I’m just in a little pond.”

Coming from perhaps the biggest pond — New York City — Brown, like many entrepreneurs, started his production company in the basement of his home in 2002. After spending more than a decade on the road as a videographer shooting and editing for ESPN programs such as NFL Countdown, College Gameday, and Outside the Lines, which had him working mostly weekends, he said he was missing his children’s early years.

By 2006, he’d moved to an office with a large studio in Springfield, and his client base grew, just as technology in both cameras and editing software was advancing.

After a short-lived move to West Springfield, Brown is moving NYSM back to Springfield this spring to take advantage of more energy-efficient space as he embarks on a new chapter in his company’s history.

For this issue’s focus on technology, BusinessWest visited NYSM to gain some insight and perspective concerning the many breakthroughs in lighting, cameras, and editing software that will enable Brown get back to movies and attract the kind of corporate clients he covets.

Light Year

Superior lighting is one of the most important aspects of Brown’s business, and he admits that the biggest challenge in his industry is just keeping up with technology, which has advanced in just the last two years at the speed of, well, light.

He gets most of his education about the newest video-production technology at the National Assoc. of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, the world’s largest electronic media show covering filmed entertainment, video, and sound production, held each spring in Las Vegas.

“It’s the go-to place for technology; I keep up with what constitutes the latest and greatest, and this year, my main reason for attending is to convert all my studio lighting to LED lighting,” he said, noting that LED (light-emitting diode) systems require less power (from 20 amps to 2.5 amps) and produce near-zero heat, which helps with air-conditioning usage and, ultimately, his shop’s electricity expenses. “It’s the right move, and I want to see what’s out there.”

However, Brown explained to BusinessWest that LED lighting technology is still in its infancy; some inexact color-temperature differences, he explained, can seriously affect the cool or warm tinted outcome of a commercial shoot, both indoors and outdoors.

“Color temperature has to be so exact for television shoots, and I don’t care what fandangle camera you have; if the color temperature is off, you’re going to see it,” Brown explained.

New York City

Correct lighting, indoors as well as outdoors, is vital for a quality commercial production, as seen at one of Ed Brown’s recent commercial shoots on the streets of New York City.

The higher the color temperature, the bluer, or cooler, the light will appear, he explained, while the lower the temperature, the warmer the light will appear. When filming commercials indoors and outdoors, Brown’s cameras are extremely sensitive to light, which requires him to set his lights at the same temperature to keep the subject matter and background setting the same tone from edited frame to edited frame. It’s the reason for his concern about the advancements in precise LED lighting.

Brown’s meticulous attention to detail, talent, and accrued equipment add up to production costs that can run 20 times more that they would be for a small local TV-commercial producer, but the result is what he calls “New York-quality commercials.”

A recent shoot for a Connecticut-based bank ran $10,000 for a two-day shoot that involved more than $250,000 worth of equipment on set, and that’s before he hit his editing suite to cut the commercial, at $225 per hour.

However, he said those rates are far less expensive than what high-end production would cost in a large city, and he’s raising the bar even further with his recent purchases.

“I’ve been trying get that Madison Avenue thinking here in Western Mass.,” Brown noted in reference to a strategic initiative that he believes will put NYSM on par with any large-city production house.

Resolution Revolution

Brown’s new production-equipment package, which includes a single digital camera, a powerful new computer, upgraded editing software, and other accessories, cost him just under $80,000.

The main item is the Sony F55 digital camera, which boasts the ability to shoot in ultra-high definition, or what’s known as 4K, which is what ultra-high-definition televisions (UHDTV) require for excellent picture quality. The 4K resolution, he explained, is a generic term for display devices or content having horizontal resolution (DPI, or dots per square inch, which are distinct pixels in the smallest addressable visual element) on the order of 4,000 pixels. While many movies are still shot with 35mm cameras, more and more cinematographers are switching to digital cameras, like the Sony F55 and Red Epic (a competing brand).

But most television stations where Brown’s commercials air are currently high-definition (HD) only, as many home televisions are still only HDTVs.

So, does a 4K camera make sense? His answer is a quick and emphatic ‘yes,’ stressing that it’s all about quality compression — and the future of his industry.

Television broadcasts operate only in HD, or 1080×1920 pixels, but commercials shot in 4K, or four times larger, are compressed and reduced, and the picture quality is still extremely precise, meaning every pore and every hair of the person in the commercial is extremely obvious — “which produces a really big problem,” he said. “I now really need a great makeup artist.” But with makeup professionals experienced in film production working for him, Brown has that base covered.

However, he explained, commercials shot in HD lose their DPI quality every time they are saved in an edited format before being sent to TV stations. One hour of filming in 4K can result in 500 gigabytes of raw footage, which he then edits through a process called color grading. This process maintains the UHDTV integrity until the spot is completed and image size is finally reduced on a file (600 MB or less when sent to TV stations) for airplay.

“It’s why national commercial spots, which are the same quality as what I do, look so much more rich than what is typically regionally produced,” Brown explained.

Editing software has also advanced considerably. Three software programs are currently being used: Apple’s Final Cut Pro; Avid (with which 80% to 90% of all motion pictures are edited); and Adobe Premier Pro Creative Cloud, which Brown prefers. Deciding to spend more time developing smartphones, Apple recently suspended production of Final Cut, but the software and hardware giant isn’t out of the film-editing business, as it’s producing quality computers with power that is “screaming,” he said — “a ton of horsepower in a tiny little box.”

Brown’s newest purchase, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, is more than a  “glorified iPad,” he noted. With almost no produced heat and 16 GB of RAM, an Intel i7 quad core (four central processing units), and terabyte solid-state storage, the slim machine has plenty of power, allowing Brown to process huge amounts of 4K raw video data in conjunction with the Pegasus R6 Raid System connected via Thunderbolt.

All these powerful pieces have Brown excited, but, at times, just a bit overwhelmed.

“It’s such new technology that is so new and so different … that I’m actually a little afraid of it,” he said, adding quickly that, since the holidays, he’s been working with it all daily, and his comfort level is about 100%.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Brown’s next purchase is what he calls the $9,500 trashcan, because it literally looks like a small black trashcan. The new 2013 Mac Pro, a sleek, cylindrical computer as tall as a typical coffee thermos and just a bit wider, offers 12 cores of processing ability (the typical MacBook Pro has only two cores), and even more RAM and processing power, assuring that no future project will be too massive.

He believes these investments will allow NYSM to secure more Fortune 500 clients and take on the brighter lights of Hollywood.

To that end, Brown has been rubbing shoulders with members of the Berkshire Film and Media Commission, which is closely tied to the Mass. Film Office. More than a dozen films were shot in Massachusetts last year, creating revenue of more than $359 million, and Brown, as a cinematographer, wants a piece of that action.

As his investments in expensive technology keep him ahead of the curve, he’ll also target one of the most interesting new prospective businesses in Western Mass. — MGM Springfield, which could become a constant source of high-tech 4K video productions.

“4K technology will be here sooner than you think,” Brown said as he pointed to his large UHDTV screen. “As fast as HD has taken over the market, that’s how fast 4K is going to take over the market … and I’m going after the big fish.” n

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
As Speech-recognition Technology Improves, More Applications Emerge

SpeechRecogSpeech-recognition technology, which instantly translates human speech into a digital document or command, has been around in some form for about two decades. But constant improvements in performance — as well as a broading of its applications — have users excited about the future.

That performance is typically measured in accuracy and speed, but various factors have complicated the former, from the vocabulary size of the software to the rate of speech; from accented or disjointed speech to background noise.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking, produced by software developer Nuance, has long been considered the gold standard in minimizing such issues.

“At first, speech-recognition packages were more like frustrating toys with maddening limitations, but they have steadily improved over time,” writes Lamont Wood in Computer World, in a discussion about NaturallySpeaking 12, the newest Dragon product. He said the utility of speech recognition didn’t outweigh its limitations until about a decade ago, but even then, speech recognition was more reliable with long words than with short ones, misinterpreted words were often rendered as commands, and the software occasionally got confused to the point that it stopped listening.

With version 12, he notes, “these factors have faded into the background (although they they haven’t entirely disappeared). For example, you can dictate effectively at about half the speed of an auctioneer — should you prove able to do so. Assuming that you stay focused while dictating, the error rate is now trivial.”

That’s important for people who use speech recognition in a variety of fields, including:

Healthcare. The technology speeds up the transcription process by allowing a medical professional to dictate into a speech-recognition engine and cleaned up by an editor on the back end.
Military. Speech recognition has been tested successfully in fighter aircraft, with applications including setting radio frequencies, commanding an autopilot system, setting steer-point coordinates and weapons-release parameters, and controlling flight display.
Air-traffic control. Many air-traffic-control training systems require a person to act as a pilot and dialogue with the trainee. Speech recognition could potentially eliminate the need for that pseudo-pilot, thus reducing training and support personnel.
Aerospace. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander used speech recognition in some applications.

Other uses are common as well, including court reporting; assistive devices for automobiles, such as OnStar and Ford Sync; hands-free computing; robotics; video captioning for television; and interactive video games — just to name a few.

Taming the Dragon?

Dragon isn’t the only player in the field, however. “Simpler or less expensive (if not quite as powerful) options are carving out little fiefdoms,” writes Mark O’Neill in PC World. “The more choices, the better, too, given that using voice commands can stave off or reduce repetitive strain injuries. The spoken word also suits some projects better than typing.”

Among the lesser-known options are:

Windows Speech Recognition, which arrives preinstalled with newer versions of Windows. “Performance could stand some improvement,” O’Neill notes. “I found the accuracy level dipped when I dictated long texts into a MS Office doc. Nor did it respond well to my German accent, so other accents may stymie it as well.”
Google Voice Search, which works on a Google Chrome browser, which is “fairly good at recognizing what you said.”
TalkTyper, an online app with far fewer features than Dragon. “Even when I spoke clearly, it tripped up on some of the words, and I wasn’t exactly dictating rocket science. TalkTyper should be used only for simpler stuff, shorter spoken content — maybe an email or a tweet here and there.”
Tazti, an app that goes beyond simple transcription. “Rather than taking dictation, Tazti takes orders. It helps you control games, open apps, and even use the command line,” O’Neill notes. “However, Tazti’s one big drawback is it won’t let you dictate text to a document. It’s not that kind of voice recognition.”

Using voice recognition for commands is increasingly common in automobiles. Although these systems are largely user-friendly, drivers still have to rely on set commands when summoning a phone number or searching through music. But Nuance says systems that recognize true natural language with 95% accuracy are probably no more than three years away.

“I believe the biggest gains to be made are going to be in conversational speech and understanding the intent of what the user is trying to accomplish,” Brian Radloff, the company’s director of Automotive Solution Architecture, told Satellite Radio Playground. “We’re starting to see that in telephony in the mobile space.”

He said strides will come when car makers treat their infotainment systems more holistically, with screen graphics properly tying into speech control. “The bulk of the focus over the next five years in the automotive space, and in voice in general, is going to be, how do we take this experience that is very good for a certain group, and make it very good for a large swath of the car-buying public?”

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo recently began testing voice-recognition technology that banking customers can use to check their spending habits and account level. In addition, U.S. Bank has been testing the technology among its employees, and some insurance companies, including Geico and USAA, have incorporated voice recognition in their applications, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Shirley Inscoe, a senior analyst with Aite Group, a national research and advisory firm, said such advances are closely tied to the rise in mobile devices and consumers demanding to do more with them. “There’s a big desire to improve customer service. They know we as consumers don’t go anywhere without our mobile phones. It really is a way to tie a customer more closely to the financial institution.”

Other advances in voice recognition go well beyond finance and leisure activities. For instance, two MIT students recently spent their winter break in New Jersey developing a device that could give paralyzed people the ability to call for help with the sound of their voice or change the settings on their wheelchair when no one is around. They were inspired by retired physics professor Michael Ogg, who has multiple sclerosis.

“My real limitation now is because of MS. I’m completely quadriplegic. I’m just not able to move my arms and legs at all,” Ogg told the Asbury Park Press.

He relies on home health aides for daily assistance, but when he is alone, he cannot reach an alarm by his bed to summon aid. “In the case of … being able to call for help,” he said, “this is potentially life-saving technology.”

Speak Clearly

Whichever voice-recognition software one uses, Wood offers a few tips to make the technology easier and more effective, including enunciating carefully and speaking slowly enough so that each word gets its due; watching the results on the screen as you go along, which can enhance accuracy; and taking heed of background sounds.

“Background silence is best, but droning ventilators hurt recognition more than office chatter,” he writes. “Meanwhile, if you don’t mind being overheard on the phone, then you won’t mind being overheard while dictating. You can use about the same volume for the phone and for speech recognition.”

Put that way, the ever-improving realm of speech recognition can be thought of as just another office function, as it’s increasingly assimilated into many corners of the world, from gaming to aviation to healthcare — a life enhancer for some, but for others, potentially a life-saving development.


— Joseph Bednar

Sections Technology
The Latest High-tech Devices Keep Users Connected

It wasn’t too long ago that Americans used their cell phones essentially to, well, make phone calls, and maybe send text messages and take the odd photo or two.
How times have changed. We live in an era of constant communication, where the phone is now a device for staying connected to social media, making financial transactions, playing games, and engaging in 100 other activities guaranteed to keep people staring downward.
They’re called smartphones, and they have evolved over the past five years from a useful tool to a ubiquitous part of the way people interact. According to the Pew Research Center, 56% of all Americans own one (91% own a cell phone of some kind), and that percentage is constantly on the rise.
And that’s why BusinessWest begins its annual feature showcasing the newest and best-reviewed high-tech tools with a few of the leading choices in smartphones.
iPhone-5SFor starters, Apple’s iPhone continues to lead the pack. Business Insider calls the latest iteration, the iPhone 5S ($199+), the top choice among 2013 models. “Yes, it looks nearly identical to last year’s iPhone 5. Yes, there are plenty of other smartphones out there that are just as good and can do a lot more things. Yes, the screen is relatively tiny compared to a bunch of the giant Android phones out there. But that doesn’t matter,” the magazine notes, because the phone boasts an ideal balance of power, useful features, and design.
The new model adds a fingerprint sensor called Touch ID that unlocks the phone without a passcode, as well as an improved camera with a dual LED flash that helps the phone take better photos in low-light settings, and a new slow-motion video feature. And the phone’s new 64-bit processor is about twice as fast as the processor in the old iPhone 5.
“For now, the biggest drawback for iPhone owners is going to be big-screen envy,” the magazine notes. “Unless you absolutely must have a giant screen, the iPhone 5S is nearly perfect.”
Samsung-Galaxy-S4For Android enthusiasts, Business Insider heartily recommends the Samsung Galaxy S4 ($649) and HTC One ($599). “This summer, Google partnered with HTC and Samsung to make new ‘Google Play editions’ of those two flagship phones,” it notes.
Why the hefty up-front costs? Instead of selling them through a wireless carrier, Google is selling the One and Galaxy S4 at full price, unsubsidized. With other phones, carriers typically subsidize the up-front savings through wireless-plan fees over a two-year contract.
In addition, the phones will receive software updates shortly after Google releases a new version of Android. “Historically, both HTC and Samsung have been pretty bad at getting new software updates out to customers because it takes a lot of time for them to modify Android,” the magazine notes. “And overall, Google’s clean version of Android is a lot better than the modifications you normally get from HTC and Samsung. There aren’t any preinstalled apps from HTC, Samsung, or your carrier.”
Business Insider gives a slighty edge to the One, calling it more attractive and fun to use than Samsung’s model. “These two phones are designed for people who don’t want to be locked down by carrier contracts and care about having the best Android experience you can get, all wrapped in excellent hardware.”

Consuming and Computing
iPad-AirSmartphones are only one aspect of this on-the-go culture of constant communication and media consumption. Tablets are another.
According to CNET, Apple’s iPad Air ($499-$539) delivers the best blend of performance and battery life in an attractive, thin, light package, with improvements in the front-facing camera and Retina Display. However, it lacks the Touch ID scanner available on the iPhone 5.
“Functionally, the iPad Air is nearly identical to last year’s model, offering only faster performance and better video chatting,” the site notes. “But factor in design and aesthetics, and the iPad Air is on another planet. It’s the best full-size consumer tablet on the market.”
iPad-Mini2Meanwhile, those looking for something smaller and cheaper might try the iPad Mini ($399), also with Retina Display, a speedy A7 processor, and improved wi-fi and LTE connectivity, with battery life that’s as good or better than last year’s Mini. It also lacks Touch ID. Still, CNET notes, “the new iPad Mini somehow shrinks down the iPad Air into an even more compact package, sacrificing nearly nothing.”
Kindle-Fire-HDX-8.9For media consumption alone, CNET calls Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 ($379) “a performance monster that speeds through websites and UI navigation at a frantic pace. Its screen is impressively sharp and its body amazingly light for a larger tablet.”
Despite the lack (for now) of a remote video viewing feature, no built-in storage expansion beyond the included 16 GB, and lack of Google Play access, meaning many apps still aren’t available, the device “isn’t just a great value, it sets the standard for a media consumption tablet.”
MacBook-Pro-13-inchLaptop computers continue to advance in speed and performance as well, and the best of the current crop, according to laptopmag.com, is the MacBook Pro 13-inch ($1,299), featuring an impressive 2560-by-1600-pixel Retina Display. “A fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor and blazing-fast Flash storage drive make the MacBook Pro with Retina display a speed demon, while a lightweight, 3.46-pound chassis and 9.5 hours of battery life let you carry it all day.”
Pavilion-TouchSmart-11zFor consumers on a budget, the site’s top pick for 2013 is Hewlett Packard’s Pavilion TouchSmart 11z ($399), which combines a crisp, responsive 11.6-inch touchscreen with good battery life. While it’s not designed for heavy multitasking, offers narrow viewing angles, and is somewhat heavy for an 11-inch notebook, the speedy A4 processor, 320-GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM more than make up for those shortcomings, at least for the price.

Image Is Everything
Samsung-CLP-775NDPrinters come in a wide variety of price points, depending on the user’s needs for features and performance. Toward the higher side, Samsung’s CLP-775ND Laser Printer ($750) is the current favorite of PC World, which notes that “it breaks no new ground in output quality — photos are a challenge for it, as they are for most color lasers — but it’s fast and well-equipped, and its toner is economical.”
Standard features include automatic duplexing, a 500-sheet main input tray, a 100-sheet multi-purpose tray for envelopes and other thicker media, and a 350-sheet output tray, with room to add up to two more bottom-mounted, 500-sheet feeder trays. On the minus side, the transfer belt — a page-wide plastic band that helps convey toner from the cartridge to the paper — is fully exposed when the printer’s front panel is open, “just asking you to drop something on it.”
Still, with a 600 MHz dual-core processor and 384 MB of memory (expandable to 896 MB), the CLP-775ND posts a fast time of 18.1 pages per minute printing plain text, while color photos come out quicker than average, even though the quality of those pictures is pedestrian.
On the budget end of the printer scale, “the $300 range offers an interesting either/or choice: high-end color inkjets with full feature sets, for small-office or high-end home use, and very low-end lasers for small or home offices,” PC World notes. “But note that, while you can get a pretty nice monochrome laser for $300, a like-priced color model will be slow, lacking in features, and expensive to replenish.”
Officejet-Pro-8600-PlusThat said, the magazine’s top pick in this range is HP’s Officejet Pro 8600 Plus ($300), which boasts speed, at 13.2 pages per minute of plain text, and quick performance with printing photos, copying, and scanning. Meanwhile, features include universal automatic duplexing for copying, scanning, and printing, and full support of legal-size paper.
However, it can’t print on a CD or DVD, and its touch controls can be slow to react. Still, it does print from a smartphone or tablet, or from a remote location, through HP’s free ePrint service.
Fujifilm-X100SSpeaking of photos, digital cameras continue to evolve at a wide variety of price points. For those willing to foot the bill, PC Magazine highly recommends the Fujifilm X100S ($1,299), the follow-up to Fuji’s groundbreaking X100 digital camera.
The camera, like its predecessor, boasts a retro design, as well as a hybrid viewfinder system that can toggle between a big, bright optical view and an electronic viewfinder, as well as a fast lens with a 35-mm (full-frame equivalent) field of view. “The sensor has been upgraded to a 16-megapixel X-Trans CMOS design that is capable of producing some incredible results at extremely high ISO settings, and a notoriously sluggish autofocus system is now a reasonably quick one.”
Olympus-Tough-TG-2-iHSFor significantly less money, PC Magazine called the Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS a solid option at $379. Like its predecessor, the Tough TG-1 iHS — which the magazine described as “a compact shooter with a fast lens that could shoot deep underwater and survive drops, pressure, and extreme temperatures,” while taking great photos in all types of light — the new model makes a few modest upgrades at a lower price. “We haven’t seen another rugged camera that could challenge the TG-1,” it noted, making the TG-2 the logical choice for 2013.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
Jeremiah Beaudry Colors in a Successful Story of Entrepreneurship

By MICHAEL REARDON

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry took his youthful passion for computer repair and turned it into a successful business.

By the time Jeremiah Beaudry was 10 years old, he was building computers.
By the time he was 14, he was running his uncle’s computer repair shop, and by the time he turned 15, he had started his own computer business.
Call him a prodigy. Call him a wunderkind. The bottom line is, the owner of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee knew exactly what he wanted to do in life, and was very good at it from a young age.
“My uncle, Len Beaudry, had his own computer shop in Leominster called Computer HMO,” Beaudry told BusinessWest. “He would drop off broken computers at our house, and my Dad would put them in the basement, and I would go down there and play with them. They were like Lego sets to me.”
When he was 13, Beaudry worked summers repairing computers in his uncle’s shop. The next summer, he ran the business while Len was away. Beaudry mostly taught himself about computers, as he scoured the Internet for instructional videos and any other resources he could find.
“I broke things constantly,” he said. “I’d spend days figuring out what I did wrong. I learned by getting my hands on it and why I did what I did.”
At 15, he opened his business, initially called CBOS Computers, out of his basement at home.
“It was a silly name; it stood for Can’t Beat Our Service,” Beaudry said with a chuckle.
Beaudry, now 30, recently sat in his small computer shop on Grattan Street in Chicopee, surrounded by computers in various stages of assembly and repair, to talk about his business and his formula for success. He was relaxed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, and takes a genuine interest in other people, asking a visitor how he got started in his business.
The choice of the name Bloo Solutions, with the unconventional spelling of the word ‘blue,’ was simple. Beaudry loves the color and designed many websites using different variations of blue. When he went to register the domain name, he found another company called Blue Solutions existed, so he simply changed the spelling.
The venture has carved out a niche as a resource for small businesses throughout the region seeking information-technology solutions. Beaudry provides a wide range of services, including website design, repairs and troubleshooting, virus removal, network and security setup, and more.
He has also offered advice to clients on the right computer or entertainment center to buy, and even on how best to market their products or services.
“What I like most is solving problems for people,” Beaudry explained. “I like to know I’m doing something to make a positive difference in somebody’s business.”

Web of Intrigue
A native of South Hadley, Beaudry graduated from South Hadley High School in 2001. Before earning that diploma, though, he was earning a salary with his own business, one focused mostly on repairing computers owned by clients of his father, an independent financial manager.
“I learned a lot … they were patient with me,” he said, adding that having a father who worked for himself had a big influence on him. “Having flexibility is more important than having stability sometimes.”
In the beginning, Beaudry would make cold calls to area business owners trying to  grow his client roster. In 1999, he scored his first big website-design job when he was hired by Tekoa Country Club in Westfield.
“I got a $4,000 contract to do their website,” he said. “It was unbelievable to me. Since then, I’ve never advertised. Business has been all word of mouth. It’s grown organically.”
Beaudry took a break from the business to attend Bentley College in Waltham. While at school, he worked at a local Radio Shack, which he hated. Indeed, that experience only reinforced his resolve to work for himself and enjoy both the freedom and responsibilities that come with being an entrepreneur.
“I was working someone else’s schedule,” Beaudry said of his time at Radio Shack. “It was the same thing every day. I wasn’t helping anyone; I was just selling things. I probably lasted there only four to six months.”
Bentley College didn’t take either. Beaudry found a client in Hingham, a retail store called Beauty and Main, that was expanding and needed help with updating its computer system to accommodate the move.
“They expanded from one to eight stores, and my job was to install software in all of their stores all over New England,” Beaudry said. “They were 80% of my revenue. I had a couple of people working for me at the time, helping with that project.”
That’s when Beaudry decided to leave Bentley behind and move back to South Hadley. He worked out of his house for 10 years before getting married and starting a family. Beaudry, his wife Chelsea, and son Daxton, who was born in June, live just over a mile away from his shop.
“Having a home office did the trick for a long time,” he said. “But then you start a family, and the office becomes the baby’s room. Plus, I needed a place to meet clients or where they could drop off their computers.”
Bloo Solutions has been at the Grattan Street location for about three and a half years. Beaudry has one employee, his South Hadley High School friend, Joshua Charland, an IT consultant, and more than 100 clients, about 25 of them steady.
“We try to be a one-stop shop,” Beaudry explained. “We target small businesses. We can be their outsourced IT department; they can come to us with all of their questions.”
Chicopee attorney Robert Lefebvre of Gelinas & Lefebvre has been a client of Bloo Solutions for about 10 years, from the time he met Beaudry through a marketing group. At the time, his four-attorney office needed help replacing equipment and updating its system. Since then, Beaudry has been like the office’s own IT department.
“Jeremiah has provided many services for us,” Lefebvre said. “He’s been phenomenal in helping our practice.”
The services provided by Bloo Solutions to Lefebvre’s law firm have evolved over the years to everything from designing the website to updating equipment; from installing backup systems to online marketing, and more.
“Jeremiah is indispensible,” Lefebvre said. “I’ve referred him to many different clients and businesses, and they’ve gotten the same great results that we have. For what he does, you usually have to hire a larger company that would cost you much more money. He provides a unique service to small companies.”
According to Lefebvre, what really impressed him about Beaudry was his commitment to getting to know how the law firm was run so he could better determine exactly the kind of services it would need.
“He’s reliable,” Lefebvre said. “He would research what other, similar firms are doing on issues involving security, and he would come back with recommendations so he could adequately structure our systems.”
Another Chicopee client, A. Crane Construction, retains Bloo Solutions for several IT projects, including the redesign of the company’s website, social-media marketing, IT solutions, and other work.
“Jeremiah is extremely detail-oriented,” said A.J. Crane, owner of the company. “He’s very serious about his business, which is not a common trait among many young business people. He treats his business like we treat ours. He’s very personable, very respectful.”
If Beaudry doesn’t have the answer, he has other experts he can recommend to do the job, he noted. And he is willing to refer his clients to someone who can help with a problem that is out of his area of expertise.
“He always finds the solution for us, even if it doesn’t make money for him,” Crane said.

Technically Speaking
Beaudry told BusinessWest that he’s diligent about keeping up with the ever-changing high-tech landscape. Computer viruses and other destructive bugs are getting more sophisticated and stealthy, and that keeps him busy educating his clients and installing or updating preventative solutions.
“One of the biggest things we do is to make sure clients’ network and security protocol are consistent so viruses won’t infect their computers,” he said. “It’s important to put protections in place so that, if a virus gets into your system, you won’t have much downtime. Downtime costs money, so we try to minimize it so you’re up and running in hours, not days. Nothing is more vital than having backups to your computer system.”
By providing such solutions, Beaudry has kept his clients from feeling blue — or, in this case, bloo, which has become the color of success.

Sections Technology
Innovative Business Systems and TechCavalry Simplify Clients’ Access to Information

Dave DelVecchio

TechCavalry, acquired in 2012 by Innovative Business Systems, allows Dave DelVecchio and his staff to assist small businesses and individuals with their IT issues.

Late one night at the University of Central Florida, young college student Dave DelVecchio was discussing the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with his roommate, but the two couldn’t recall the first name of Ferris’ best friend.
Racking their brains at 2 a.m., the students did the only thing they knew how to do back in 1989: they called local radio DJs, and after a few attempts, they found one who knew the character’s name (it was Cameron).
Fast-forward 25 years. Just last month DelVecchio was at Fenway Park, and a friend asked where a particular player hailed from. Within 20 seconds, DelVecchio picked up his smartphone and found the answer on Google.
Google — a word that would have drawn blank stares in 1998 — is not only the name of the world’s most ubiquitous search engine, but also a verb; people spend major portions of every week ‘Googling’ answers to questions of various levels of importance.
DelVecchio’s college example of how much more information people have at their fingertips today is reflected in his favorite saying: “that’s why you have a data plan.”
As president of Easthampton-based Innovative Business Systems (IBS), a 23-year-old IT-solutions company — and the parent company of newly acquired TechCavalry — DelVecchio and his four partners are tasked with finding solutions for businesses and individuals to access data, at home or at work.
Through IBS specifically, DelVecchio and his team can provide expertise and resources to meet a client’s information-technology needs, or operate as the IT department’s best resource.

Offering examples, DelVecchio cited a local bank that IBS helped cut server recovery time from eight hours to 45 minutes, and a local nonprofit for which the firm helped move an underperforming peer-to-peer network to a server-based environment complete with mobility solutions.
Additionally, since acquiring Northampton-based TechCavalry in 2012, IBS has grown from 13 to 27 employees and, through that new entity, can provide individuals and smaller businesses (50 employees or fewer) with project-based IT solutions to retrieve their data and protect it cost-effectively.
“It was an opportunity for us to position TechCavalry to serve an underserved segment of the market,” said DelVecchio. “All these technology advances have provided new and sometimes far-more efficient ways to get access to information. It’s not about turning the screwdriver and fixing the problem; it’s about providing consultative analysis and weeding through all the options to make the smart choices for a business.”
For this issue’s focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with DelVecchio to learn more about how he and his team have grown IBS, and now TechCavalry, and how both firms help business owners and individuals cut through the advertising clutter to find the best data solutions.

Next Generation
DelVecchio was a marketing graduate fresh out of college when he landed his first marketing job in 1994 with Bill Tremblay, the former owner of IBS, and on the first day of work had to be shown how to use a mouse.
DelVecchio, who jokingly said he’s now mastered the mouse, often uses a quote from Tremblay, from whom DelVecchio and his four partners later purchased the company in 2003: “computer hardware is the necessary evil to run the software that runs your business.”
As he talked with BusinessWest, DelVecchio explained that Tremblay, an IT project manager at Kollmorgen, started a small software-development company in 1987 and incorporated in 1990. His philosophy was that the company was supporting not just technology, but the user experience.
After working under Tremblay for almost a decade, that user-experience vision is the same for DelVecchio and his partners, who include Vice President and Treasurer Brian Scanlon, as well as Scott Seifel, Ben Scoble, and Sean Benoit.
DelVecchio, who advanced from marketing assistant to president and owner, is not alone in his non-technical background. Most of the staff at both IBS and TechCavalry came from myriad backgrounds, which allows them to effectively relate to a wide variety of client businesses.
Having three of the five partners literally rubbing shoulders with customers and clients is one of the benefits of working with IBS and TechCavalry, said DelVecchio, which also quells one of the biggest complaints in the IT service industry — consultant turnover — due in large part to the fact that Seifel, Scoble, and Benoit are active members of the technical service team, and add a sense of stability to both companies.
“It also helps us to recruit and retain non-partners, because those that come in realize that we’re all in this together. If you want to say the inmates now run the asylum, we were once the inmates,” DelVecchio said with a smile.
As they grew IBS, they found that Western Mass. is home to many smaller companies that didn’t necessarily need smarter technology, but they needed things quickly. DelVecchio said businesses have fewer options for those emergency calls because most growing IT firms won’t handle the ‘little guys.’
Enter Jef Sharp and Jeff Hausthor — serial entrepreneurs who had created nine businesses in a little over a decade — who had launched TechCavalry in 2002 out of a small garage in Florence. With their other businesses growing simultaneously, both owners felt that they needed experienced assistance to manage their small firm, and DelVecchio was approached to consider management duties.
Like the cavalry whose presence is announced with brass fanfare, TechCalvary boasts a trumpet logo and the tagline, “PC troubles? Help is on the way!” That focus appealed to the five partners at IBS, who felt that TechCavalry had a solid niche in the personal-consumer market with excellent growth potential, but that both parties would be better served if IBS owned the business.
“One of the biggest values in TechCavalry was their name in marketing,” said DelVecchio.  “Who are you going to call when you need an emergency fixed? You’re going to call in the cavalry.”
In August 2012, IBS acquired TechCavalry and combined the two firms in its Easthampton location. Now, in one expanded headquarters, the company hosts IT user group meetings, lunch-and-learn events, and technology-showcase events, with potential for future expansion on site.

Customer Centric

It was just three years ago that the IBS team decided to segue away from Tremblay’s software-development focus and center on providing IT services and consulting through PC sales, data analysis, networking, hardware and software support, repair, and maintenance.
With the new Windows 8, iPhone OS5, and a thousand other bells and whistles that keep business owners wondering if and how they should invest in technology, IBS and TechCavalry help customers figure out the best fit for their business needs.
“A lot of companies put out a lot of technology because they’re trying to make a buck,” DelVecchio said. “What we do is determine which technologies might be relevant for our clients.”
Cost isn’t always the main factor, he added, noting that his firm has talked clients out of overly complex and expensive solutions as often as it has guided them away from inadequate ones.
The clients that understand the role of technology in business, he said, are the ones that yield the most positive outcome. As a real-world example, he cited a potential new client whose major grievance was the collective 90 minutes of productivity he was losing each day being interrupted by employee complaints regarding their own loss of time due to slow or inefficient technology.
“For him, it wasn’t about technology, and it wasn’t about shaving pennies; it was specifically about how we as a company could add value to their business by helping the owner regain that five to eight hours a week worrying about technology and focus on running the business,” DelVecchio said.  “Having a business owner who is an actively engaged participant — and wants the right technology and dollars to be spent in the right places — makes the engagement much easier, and they get real value out of their investment.”

Emerging Field
Where technology is going to lead the business world in the next 10 years isn’t fully defined, said DelVecchio. The challenge for business owners is to not get distracted.
“There is never a panacea that is your solution to every problem,” he added. “Ultimately, it’s about using the right technology for the right reasons.”
DelVecchio’s goal for both firms is to grow in organic fashion — slow and steady — to be able to maintain the deep time commitment clients require.
“All the advances of technology have provided new and sometimes far more efficient ways to get access to information,” he said, “and all we’ve been asked to do as a company, from day one, is to help provide that conduit.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
VizConnect Takes Mobile Marketing to New Heights

Ed Carroll, co-founder of VizConnect

Ed Carroll,
co-founder of VizConnect

Ed Carroll says businesses, salespeople, or entrepreneurs who are not advertising on mobile devices are losing customers, and his claim is backed up by many studies, including a survey showing that more than 86 million people sought business information last year via their smartphones.
The co-founder of VizConnect in Springfield first became aware of the trend in 2004 when he was working as a television newscaster and Facebook began to gain in popularity. “I saw a paradigm shift taking place away from mainstream media, and one night I began thinking about how businesses could use it because they are completely underserved in that area,” said Carroll, who eventually came up with the idea for the high-tech company he started in 2011 with sales and marketing guru Brian Dee.
The company’s product, a video-based mobile marketing platform, is designed to help small companies or businesspeople keep pace with changes in the way products and services are marketed today.
“Large companies have staffs and people who keep track of trends, but 80% of the economy is small businesses, and they don’t have the budget to do what they need to do to compete in the mobile scene,” Carroll told BusinessWest. “There has been a huge shift to mobile marketing, and everyone in business needs to think about how to get their message onto a mobile device.”
VizConnect has grown quickly, and today is operated by a team of partners who oversee more than 400 distributors. The product they sell has been test-marketed and improved since it was introduced to the marketplace, and most of the distributors came on board in the last six months when the company took steps to grow its sales force, due to enthusiasm about the software.
When people scan a VizConnect QR code or text message a keyword with a code, they come face to face with options that allow them to watch a video, download a coupon, view items on sale or a customer testimonial, learn more about a product or service, communicate directly with the seller, or buy the product. They can access these with a simple click, and after they watch a video, their screen changes, giving them the option of clicking again to share it on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn; calling the company; making a purchase; or anything else the business elects.
“Right now most QR codes go to a static website; we have made them more dynamic,” Carroll said. “Our platform was designed to be a call to action.”
He explained that what comes up on the screen after someone texts to a keyword or scans a QR code can make or break a sale. “Research shows it takes the human mind about six seconds to decide whether to stay or go. It’s a yes or no,” Carroll said.
He added that businesses that fail to use simple techniques to engage customers on mobile devices will soon be left behind. “This is the 21st century, and it’s all about mobile.”
Dee agrees. “Studies show that people never get more than three or four feet away from their mobile devices, and where they get their information drives their decisions,” he said.
VizConnect’s platform costs $60 a month and allows clients to market their products or services in different ways to different audiences, which can include messages in more than one language.
The common denominator is that a customer is immediately given choices. They can click on a window that says ‘see more inventory,’ one that says ‘call,’ or another that prompts them to take a different action.
These options are customized and linked to up to 10 QR codes that can show different videos or display different information. “We have simultaneous multi-messaging so people can target a mailer to a Spanish- or English-speaking demographic. It’s a very versatile platform,” Carroll said, adding that it allows companies to capture the cell-phone numbers of people who visit their site.
“They can legally market to them until they text the word ‘stop,’” he explained, as he used his smartphone to demonstrate the sequence of events.

Menu of Options

Brian Dee

Brian Dee says the company is adding distributors across the U.S. and is eyeing global expansion.

When the VizConnect video platform was first created, the text-messaging option did not exist. “The first year, we only had QR and video,” Dee explained.
But as text messaging grew in popularity, they integrated it into the software. “It allows consumers to have a choice,” Carroll said, adding that the majority of people choose the text-messaging option.
Dee agreed, noting that “QR codes have a place, but the jury is still out on them.”
However, they do serve a purpose. Since they can be created in color, many companies are using them as part of their brand. “We suggest that our customers use a QR code with their logo and the words ‘scan or text to’ a designated code next to it,” Dee said.
The text message prompt and/or QR code can be put on a business card, billboard, refrigerator magnet, T-shirt, or the menu a pizza shop staples onto a box. “The menu could sit in someone’s house for a year, and they could scan it every night to get the dinner special,” Carroll said. Codes can also be saved on a smartphone.
And if a QR code is scanned by just one person, then relayed to any form of social media, it can lead to a great deal of exposure. “If a code gets scanned once, it could be viewed more than 1,000 times by someone who has more than 1,000 Facebook friends,” Carroll said.
However, the texting option is far more popular. “It’s absolutely a key concept of our business and the one the majority of people are using,” Dee said, adding that each customer gets 10 QR codes that are married to a keyword and a short code that goes along with each of them.
Whether the customer sends a text message or scans the QR code, it takes them to the same interface. “Texting is an everyday part of American life, so it’s the perfect bridge for a small business to reach their customers on their smartphones,” Carroll continued, reiterating that it can drive them to a coupon, video, or whatever message or video the company or salesperson wants to project.
In addition, these messages can be changed on a daily basis as VizConnect gives clients the tools to deliver, manage, and store an unlimited amount of video.
“Video engages. It creates a response. It works,” Carroll said. “It’s the most engaging medium that has ever been created because it hits all the senses and invokes an emotion whether someone is visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Everyone who watches will be stirred to do something. It’s easy to create and doesn’t have to be long to be effective.”
Videos can be created at no cost with the client’s smartphone, and even a six-second video is effective.
“The longer it is, the more boring it becomes. And if you don’t like it, it’s easy to redo,” Carroll said as he picked up his smartphone to make a short video of himself talking. “If you have a restaurant and sell cheeseburgers, you can grab your phone and shoot a high-definition video and tell people it’s a great buy. Or you can serve one to someone and have them say, ‘this is delicious. You have to try it.’ Testimonials are the best way of getting new business, as they give you credibility.”

Spreading the Word
Carroll and Dee sold their product door to door for more than a year, all the while ironing out kinks and improving its efficacy. They also chose a select number of people to help them.
But after incorporating texting into the software, they made the decision to go public last November and offered people a way to join the company by becoming distributors.
They hold informational seminars every Tuesday at 7 p.m. in their offices on the 14th floor of the Sovereign Bank building on Main Street in Springfield for potential customers and salespeople, along with team-building conferences and training seminars.
“We have a direct selling platform, and in this economy, people thinking about starting their own business or developing a way to generate extra income can join us,” Carroll said, adding that they have plumbers, firefighters, and law-enforcement officers working for them.
The company also has six partners — four who are local and two in San Francisco. Carroll, an Associated Press and Emmy-award-winning on-air personality, has appeared on local television newscasts throughout New England as well as CBS Evening News, and spent many years producing and appearing in weathercasts, news features, and special programs.
Dee, the company’s secretary and chief sales officer, spent 20 years in sales, with a focus in sports marketing. His career includes managing credit-card marketing programs for MBNA America and Bank of America in conjunction with the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots, along with many major college sports teams.
President Paul Coleen was a former bond trader on Wall Street, while attorney James Henderson is treasurer and provides the company with legal counsel.
And they say news about VizConnect is spreading fast. Accolades include the fact that the company was named one of the top five technology start-ups to watch by Mass. High Tech and the Boston Business Journal last year.

Moving Forward
As the smartphone industry explodes, Carroll and Dee expect their business to continue growing. “It’s comes down to this: smartphones are where people go to get information to make a decision,” Carroll said.
Dee concurred. “We’re excited about the future as we continue to add distributors across the U.S. and eventually look forward to international expansion.”
Which makes perfect sense, with multilingual options and a product designed to keep pace with the times.

Sections Technology
Understand the Dangers of Insufficient Backup Procedures

By SEAN HOGAN

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

Today’s businesses are operating at a blistering pace, and IT infrastructure has become the backbone of small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) across the nation. The complexity and strain placed on networks has exposed these businesses to greater security threats than ever before.

Natural disasters, power outages, employee errors, and failed system upgrades all pose significant threats to the network, and failing to address these risks can cause severe network damage and immobilize a company for hours, days, or weeks. The best way to combat this dynamic is to understand the risks, address the problem, and make sure the proper precautions have been taken.

One of the risks most easily mitigated is when data simply hasn’t been backed up. Oftentimes, organizations fail to have a regular backup procedure in place, whether partially or completely, and having a data-backup program can help get around this issue.

According to Symantec’s 2011 SMB Disaster Preparedness Survey, “only half [of SMBs] back up at least 60% of their data,” meaning they would lose 40% of their data in the event of a disaster. In addition, organizations often fail to back up corporate PCs, or take an all-or-nothing approach if it can’t be all-inclusive. For example, of those surveyed, 31% don’t back up e-mail, 21% don’t back up application data, and 17% don’t back up customer data.

The biggest benefit to having a process in place is that employees never have to redo work. If data is ever lost, it can be recovered rather quickly and with minimal effort.

Another risk to address is failing to protect branch offices or telecommuters. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ doesn’t exactly fare too well in the corporate arena. When businesses are subject to compliance or regulatory standards, they must ensure that all company endpoints are protected in an appropriate fashion. When there is a centralized IT support staff, they can often overlook users that are not primarily in the office, as in the case of salespeople, for example.

Failure to consistently back up company data is another common oversight. The benefit of having an automated or regularly scheduled backup is paramount. According to Enterprise Security Group, even with all the advancements in storage technology, only about 20% of backup jobs are successful. This is exactly why consistency and frequency are such key metrics in evaluating any backup solution.

Utilizing outdated equipment such as tape or disk media poses a threat in that these solutions are hardware, meaning they can be lost, stolen, or improperly stored. Any of those situations usually results in irretrievable data, therefore rendering that equipment useless when a recovery is most needed.

Today’s business continuity and disaster-recovery solutions address these risks and provide a software-based solution that virtualizes all data to the cloud. This enhances overall performance by providing greater accuracy, efficiency, security, and archiving functionality to a business’s disaster-recovery plan.

Simply put, technology has come too far for businesses to have to deal with the notion of losing important data and risking going out of business. With today’s powerful solutions and the assistance of a trusted IT advisor, SMBs can protect themselves, their employees, and their customers’ data from these threats.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Easthampton-based Hogan Technology, a business-technology company that specializes in increasing customer profitability and efficiency through the use of technology www.teamhogan.com

Sections Technology
How to Manage the Minefield of Electronically Stored Information

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!” — The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

We live and work in a digital age. More than 89 billion corporate e-mails are sent and received each year, and more than 300,000 pages of text can be stored on one computer alone.
Electronically stored information (ESI) comes in a multitude of different file types and formats, including, but not limited to, e-files or electronic documents that exist on a user’s hard drive, a network drive, or a document management system; word-processing documents, such as Word or RTF; PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets; graphic files, such as PDFs, TIFs, or JPEGs; web pages or web-based data; video or sound files; server or web based e-mail; and Outlook/Exchange. ESI may be stored duplicatively as well; for example, an e-mail may be stored in Outlook and on that same user’s BlackBerry or iPhone.
The volume of ESI continues to grow and multiply rapidly just in the course of ordinary business operations. Because of the sheer and ever-expanding volume of ESI, storing and managing it can be extremely overwhelming, costly, and burdensome for businesses. Yet, not properly storing and maintaining certain ESI may present legal liabilities.
To ensure that necessary ESI is being maintained and that unnecessary ESI is being purged, companies should implement a comprehensive document retention-and-destruction policy that specifically addresses ESI. Presently, many companies may not even have a formalized written plan that describes how and where their paper documents will be stored and when they will be destroyed, let alone addresses the storage and destruction of ESI. In fact, since having such a policy is not mandatory, for many companies, less-formalized standards, which have not been memorialized in writing, have evolved over time as a matter of practice.
Establishing a written comprehensive document retention-and-destruction policy is a best practice for two primary reasons: legal compliance and legal defense. In our digital age, because many documents are electronically stored, establishing such a policy that also specifically addresses the storage, retention, and destruction of ESI is crucial. Indeed, ESI presents unique challenges because of its volume and the difficulty in accessing and retrieving it.
From a legal-compliance standpoint, there are myriad laws that mandate the types of documents that must be retained, the ways in which they must be stored, and the length of time they must be kept. For example, wage-and-hour laws require businesses to maintain certain payroll records containing information such as the employee’s name, address, Social Security number, and job title and the hours worked and amount paid to that employee for each pay period. In an increasingly digital workplace, this type of payroll information may only be stored electronically.
Accessing and retrieving that information, and otherwise ensuring its preservation, is critical to demonstrate compliance should a company face a federal or state governmental audit. Furthermore, privacy laws require that businesses reasonably and adequately safeguard confidential or private information whether it is stored in paper or electronic form. Thus, a formalized written policy should account for these as well as a variety of other issues and detail the ways in which the company intends to comply.
From a litigation-defense standpoint, companies have a legal obligation to preserve all relevant documents if litigation arises or if litigation is threatened. In other words, once a lawsuit is filed or anticipated, companies cannot lose or inadvertently destroy documents that are germane to litigation. Therefore, not having a document retention and destruction policy that specifically addresses ESI when faced with litigation or the possibility of litigation can have devastating consequences.
For example, if a former employee’s attorney requests relevant ESI that cannot be accessed or retrieved, or was otherwise deleted, a court may determine that there was a failure to preserve such relevant information and impose severe penalties and sanctions against the company.
To minimize the risk of inadvertent deletion of ESI, a company’s document retention-and-destruction policy should contain two essential provisions: a litigation-hold provision and a departing-employee provision. A litigation-hold procedure ensures that the requisite steps are taken to preserve relevant documents.  A carefully crafted litigation-hold section will identify the triggers for a hold on documents, the steps to be taken once a hold has been initiated, the types of records and data that must be preserved, and the forms in which such records and data must be preserved, the consequences for failure to preserve such data, and the name of the person at the company who can be contacted with questions or for technical assistance.
Procedures regarding the length of the retention of a departing employee’s ESI should also be included in a document retention-and-destruction policy, even when litigation is not anticipated. Too often, an unexpected lawsuit ensues, and it is discovered too late that a former employee had created ESI pertinent to the company’s defense. Indeed, oftentimes, within days after the employee’s departure, IT has reset the former employee’s computer so that another employee can use it. Thus, creating a policy that includes a set time period for the deletion of a departing employee’s ESI when litigation is not anticipated is very important.
Having a set time period can otherwise be beneficial, especially for those companies that tend to retain anything and everything. Consider, for example, a snarky e-mail that has been kept too long and now surfaces in litigation that otherwise was not expected or anticipated. If the company had a document retention-and-destruction policy that included a specific time period for deletion, such an e-mail would have been long since gone.
A carefully crafted document retention-and-destruction policy can otherwise be advantageous to companies insofar as it helps to reduce costs, eliminates the retention of redundant or unnecessary documents, maximizes computer-server storage space; and provides organized and streamlined systems for maintaining and managing documents.
Keeping paper documents organized and maintained is relatively easy; however, as noted throughout, the same is not true for ESI. Preserving ESI is very complicated and requires extraordinary coordination between upper management, human resources, legal counsel, and IT.
To minimize your company’s legal risks, you should act now by creating a formalized document retention-and-destruction policy that incorporates standards for safeguarding and disposing of ESI.
At implementation, you should train your staff to ensure they understand the policy and their relation to it. After implementation, you should periodically audit your company’s overall compliance with the policy.

Amy B. Royal, Esq. specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal LLP, a woman-owned, SOMWBA-certified, boutique, management-side labor and employment law firm; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Sections Technology
The Effect of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ on Today’s Businesses

By CHARLIE TZOUMAS

Charlie Tzoumas

Charlie Tzoumas

Gartner Inc. recently reported that ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) programs, which allow users to conduct their daily business activities with their smartphones and tablets, are the “most radical shift in enterprise client computing.”
But despite the potential cost savings in not having to purchase and maintain expensive computer equipment, this new shift to BYOD does bring serious concerns about both network performance and security.

In the Beginning
When portable technology first made its foray into the business world, it was typically through the use of company-provided laptops and cell phones, which were intended solely for professional purposes. While these were difficult to maintain and expensive to purchase, they provided each IT department with almost full control over which devices could access a given company’s network.
With the dawning of these devices for personal use, however, employees were reluctant to sacrifice their iPhones, iPads, and Android devices while at the office, which led to the push for BYOD.
As time has gone on, more and more businesses have accepted that their employees will use at least one — and sometimes two, three, or more — personal devices while in the office. It’s easy to imagine that at least one of your colleagues uses a laptop for day-to-day business activities, an iPad to take notes during a meeting, and/or a smartphone while sitting in traffic en route to the office.
On the bright side, this means that IT departments do not need to conduct as much training as they may have once needed to, but this also means that there are increasing security risks and more bandwidth congestion on these networks, which can be far worse of an inconvenience if not handled correctly.

Keeping Tabs on Network Performance
Gartner also stated that 80% of recently installed corporate wireless networks will become obsolete by 2015 due to poor infrastructure planning, and this is largely because of the growth of BYOD and the impact that this influx of devices can have on a network’s performance.
As more and more devices are added to a network, that network logically slows down. If there are enough devices, it can get overwhelmed. An overwhelmed network dramatically affects productivity, causes unnecessary anxiety for everyone involved, and, at the most severe level, can completely shut down an entire company until the situation is resolved.
How can this be fixed? Businesses must ensure that their internal wireless networks can handle these influxes of devices while still delivering the same speed and performance that their employees need to get their jobs done. Cable operators and other service providers carry a majority of the bandwidth responsibility, so choose a communications partner that has a high-capacity backbone that can be easily scaled up or down to mirror whatever needs your business may have. And make sure your provider can do this quickly, as waiting around for weeks to upgrade your bandwidth can have dramatic effects on your bottom line.

Identifying and Eliminating
Security Risks
Since the devices now being brought into today’s office environments are not company-owned, the IT department does not have full control over them, which means that accidental malware downloads or computer viruses are not only commonplace, but can easily spread to an entire company’s network in a matter of seconds.
If these devices do not have the proper security safeguards in place to protect them, they can potentially allow unknown users to access sensitive company data, which puts the entire organization at risk.
How have IT departments been addressing these concerns? They’ve focused on finding ways to limit access to critical data or to verify employee identities when accessing certain devices and applications, data, or other company resources. Software is consistently being introduced to the market — some of it coming from places as unexpected as the cable company, like Comcast’s recently introduced Upware platform — to allow software administrators to set controls so that users cannot access certain programs without prior authorization.
It may seem minor, but these small changes can help to protect your network from a number of security risks, many of which you may not even know you have.

BYOD Is Here to Stay
At the end of the day, the ability for employees to access corporate networks from their personal devices 24/7 does improve productivity and can drive business growth — and when that also translates to less cost, training, and support required on the IT department’s part, it’s unlikely that it will be going away anytime soon.
And that’s good, because Jupiter Research recently predicted that the number of BYOD devices would double by 2014, which means that enterprises really don’t have a choice, since the number of devices already in the hands of their employees makes it relatively impossible for businesses to ignore them. In fact, a large percentage of supporters for BYOD are C-level company executives themselves, who ultimately oversee IT management and push for BYOD programs to be implemented because they, too, want to use their own devices.
This means that IT departments need to invest in a reliable network infrastructure that has the capacity and bandwidth to support this growing trend, and that offers the scalability and security features to accommodate the ever-changing needs of their employees. Doing this will not only make their lives much easier and less anxiety-ridden, but will also help to improve the ultimate longevity of their company.

Charlie Tzoumas is regional vice president of Comcast Business; [email protected]

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